Words of Wisdom for
Leadership, Learning, and Life in
Exactly 99 Words

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Talk Quick!
99-Word Stories to Spark Discussion about Common Management Issues
by Brian Remer

Talk Quick! is a collection of group discussion starters designed to inspire meaningful conversations about important management issues.
(12 Discussion Activities, 33 pages, Cross Referenced, $10)

Learn more HERE.

99's On the Go

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99-Word Stories by ,
Creative Learning Director of
The Flirefly Group.
© 2017 Brian Remer
Updated Sept. 2017

99's on the 9th

Ideas based on 99-Word Stories that
come to you on the 9th of every month.

August 2017

Confined: Creativity when hands are tied

Wild and crazy ideas, that's creativity, right? We often associate novelty with the weirdly unusual. But most of the time we are restricted to narrow possibilities, confined by the situation. Yet, having your hands tied might make you more creative. Lead your team on a journey to learn more in this issue of 99's on the 9th.


As a kid I used to spend the whole of every summer on my bicycle. If it wasn't raining, I'd be biking with my buddy, Daniel, who lived on the next block. Even in small town Iowa our mothers were cautious and restricted us to the streets circumscribing our houses.

With only two blocks to peddle around you'd think we would have been bored. But no! Firemen, policemen, taxi drivers, truckers, race car drivers, chauffeurs, demolition derby drivers, we could be anyone within the confines of those eight short streets.

Locked in our box we had complete creativity.


You can build upon the theme of this 99-Word Story by using some of the following questions for your own reflection or to spark a discussion within your team or organization.

There are many ways to understand this story as the discussion questions suggest. If you or your group would like to compare or contrast your interpretation with an outside viewpoint, consider this analysis.

"Out of the box thinking" has become a popular catch phrase to motivate creativity. But sometimes you simply cannot leave "the box." Policies are too rigid, your budget is thin, decision makers cannot be convinced, or the clock is ticking toward a meltdown. This is when thinking inside the box is not only necessary but critical.

When your hands are tied, you begin to see that creativity can happen anywhere. In fact, with a few constraints, you may find the wherewithal to be more inventive, more innovative. Think about it. A blank canvas is intimidating. What on earth should you paint? How should you start? But as soon as you splash a color on the canvas, you immediately set a boundary on what the picture will be. A million options have been instantly eliminated - and the most likely path forward is gains definition.

If you have ever attended a performance of improvisational theater, you've witnessed the same effect. The actors have no script so they could invent a play about absolutely anything. But they don't. Instead, they start with a couple ideas from the audience. Then they use those prompts within the frame of a common situation - waiting for a bus, a romantic break up, sitting in a doctor's office. The very ordinary nature of the situation creates the entertainment.

Often, the best laughs come from the most obvious comments. In fact, saying the next obvious thing is one of the "rules" of improv. Patricia Ryan Madson writes in her book Improv Wisdom that the ability to be ordinary, to say the logical next thing, is what keeps an improv skit going. Giving the obvious response furthers the dialogue that eventually leads to a punch line.

Madson says, "There is a widespread belief that thinking 'outside the box' (some call this the goal of creativity) means going after far-out and unusual ideas. A true understanding of this phrase means seeing what is really obvious, but, up until then, unseen." (p. 64)

Another way to understand thinking inside the box has to do with what we know about innovation. In his book Seeing What Others Don't, Gary Klein has identified three distinct routes to fresh ideas:

The Creative Desperation Path aligns with what we usually think of as an insight: a sudden, novel idea that solves a problem through divergent thinking. It fits with the notion of out-of-the-box creativity.

But with the Contradiction Path and the Connection Path, Klein teaches us to look more carefully at what is already inside the box. Some insights result from a slow, simmering hunch that is pursued with the determination of a detective. Some are derived when we encounter information from an unusual field that sheds new light on a problem. Still others are generated by a combination of two of the Paths.

Creativity is not just a skill we turn on during a brainstorming session at work. We are creative all the time because, like my own childhood days on a bicycle, we are constantly playing different roles within the confines and expectations of supervisors, teammates, spouses, families, and friends.

For More Information

For an example of how to apply creative thinking inside the box, read the Firefly News Flash for July 2016.

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, Random House, 2005, ISBN 1-4000-8188-2

Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein, Public Affairs, New York, 2013, ISBN 978-1-61039-382-9. Reviewed in the Firefly News Flash, August 2015.


Did you use this 99-Word Story and the discussion questions or interpretation in your work or personal life? If so, about your experience! If you would like help using 99-Word Stories in your organization, please me.

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