Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking Inside the Box

by Kirk Cheyfitz

For the past decade and more, everyone in business was told that success in a rapidly changing world required constant "thinking outside the box." The result has often been financially and ethically disastrous. Now, in a radical reassessment of what really works, this book shows that the business world lost its way when it forgot how to think inside the box.


For the past decade and more, everyone in business was told that success in a rapidly changing world required constant "thinking outside the box." The result has often been financially and ethically disastrous. Now, in a radical reassessment of what really works, this book shows that the business world lost its way when it forgot how to think inside the box. Challenging the prevailing wisdom and trend-of-the-minute management advice, award-winning journalist and international businessman Kirk Cheyfitz lays out a set of historically proven principles he calls "The Box" -- the 12 unchanging rules for building, expanding, and maintaining a strong business. Everyone with an interest in business -- whether students, entrepreneurs, corporate managers, consultants, or CEOs -- will benefit from the brilliant and fundamental insights of Thinking Inside The Box:

• Learn to tell the difference between what can and cannot be controlled by management, and focus on the areas that will make the most difference.

• Understand the economic principles that never change so you can devote your attention to the things that are changing all the time.

• Rediscover the critical discipline of planning for profit.

• Understand why some acquisitions work and most don't.

• And much more...

The book draws on in-depth research, Cheyfitz's long personal experience as an entrepreneur and corporate manager, and revealing interviews with business leaders such as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Prudential Securities CEO John Strangfeld. Combining these elements, Cheyfitz presents a compelling, reliable, and well-documented account of successful business practicesthat have met the challenges of the ages. With a practical approach and carefully documented examples, Cheyfitz mercilessly exposes the hype and inaccuracies of so-called business gurus preaching the need for constant "revolution" in business.

From its very first words -- a preface titled "Don't Do Anything Stupid" -- to its very last, Thinking Inside The Box demonstrates that the only way to think outside the box productively is to learn each plank in The Box and practice it daily. For the first time, a book explains what the dot-com crash, the telecom disaster, the Enron collapse, and all the myriad, multibillion-dollar business catastrophes of the last decade have in common -- a total lack of regard for (or complete ignorance of) the basic rules of business. Here, finally, is the indispensable book that shows managers and investors where to find the path to enduring success again.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Back in the dotcom boom, "thinking outside the box"-grandiose business plans, long on visionary rhetoric and short on realistic profit projections-was all the rage. Now that that bubble has burst, businesses should get back to basics, according to this skeptical but engaging tome of management advice. Cheyfitz, a journalist and publishing executive, skewers the "largely delusional" New Economy hoopla of the 90s, when Internet boosters convinced gullible investors that the old rules of money-making no longer applied, and arrogant young web entrepreneurs opined that "profitability shows a lack of creativity." But Cheyfitz argues that the principles of competent enterprise haven't changed since the Middle Ages: pay attention to what your customers want; keep a lid on expenses rather than banking on revenue that may not materialize; buy a going concern if you can, instead of starting one yourself; treat your employees decently; above all, keep an eye on the bottom line. None of this is rocket science, but Cheyfitz keeps it fresh with vivid case studies of success stories like Federal Express and 3M and fiascoes like and Webvan. Innovation, he allows, is a necessity in business, but it will only succeed if you already know The Box inside and out: "The fundamental rules of commerce never change, so don't try to change them." With an acerbic wit and a knack for reducing the arcana of management theory to lucid common sense, Cheyfitz provides a bracing reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cheyfitz, a former Detroit Free Press reporter who founded a successful multinational custom publishing network, uses both humor and real-world events to illustrate a collection of rules for managing a business in today's economy. The rules themselves are refreshingly down-to-earth and focus on basic business principles such as "give customers what they want" and "manage your cash." Using these, the author begins by determining what kind of business one should enter into and takes readers through knowing when it's time to get out. By comparing current corporate innovations with past business practices throughout history, the author also reminds us that, in many ways, things haven't changed all that much. While the "rules" themselves may seem simplistic, the text and examples demonstrate the need to stay focused on the things that really matter in a business, such as staying solvent, while avoiding the latest management fads and pitfalls. This is an engaging and interesting book that provides commonsense advice for managing "within the box." Recommended for public libraries or libraries with large business collections.-Susan Hurst, Miami Univ. of Ohio, Oxford Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Twelve Timeless Management Rules
According to Kirk Cheyfitz, an award-winning reporter and successful businessman, all this "thinking outside the box" nonsense has gotten a lot of people in a lot of trouble. Instead of advising managers and leaders to break the rules and defy tradition, Cheyfitz urges them to reassess and embrace a set of time-tested principles for business success he calls "The Box." These 12 rules for building and growing a strong business are fundamentals that he explains should be practiced daily to avoid the kinds of disasters that have stunned the business world over the last decade, including the dot-com crash and the Enron collapse.

Cheyfitz's advice is geared for the post-new-economy. Instead of expensive gambles on unproven fads and hype about the importance of technology, he offers important reminders about the firm foundation on which good business practices must stand. These tried-and-true basics are outlined throughout Thinking Inside The Box for easy reference and maximum effectiveness. By defining The Box, he creates a starting point from which organizations can make decisions using established rules that are unchanging and timeless. He explains that running a successful business depends on taking a close look at history as well as present reality while working hard and practicing prudence. This consistency, he writes, is what will take organizations from one quarter to the next, and will keep them from doing "too much that is stupid."

No New Economies
Deconstructing the New Economy, the first chapter of Thinking Inside The Box presents the notion that "it is not possible for there to be anything really new in the economy." By placing an anthropological spin on the concept of economy and tracing it back to its Neanderthal roots, Cheyfitz demonstrates that looking back in time can save a lot of time and pain, and help companies understand where they want to go. Revealing examples, such as the story of the demise of Europe's AOL competitor, Freeserve, show how revolutionary new business models can actually be old-fashioned price cuts in disguise, and looking at the context of business can save current leaders from repeating the mistakes of the past. He sums up his historical examples with four elements that comprise the first plank of his blueprints for building The Box:

  1. From time to time everyone will believe that the economy is changing in some fundamental way, but this has never been true.
  2. Don't waste time trying to create a "new business model." There aren't any.
  3. The fundamental rules of commerce never change. So don't worry about how to change them.
  4. Use your time to focus on how your customers' lives are changing and how you can serve their emerging needs with new products and services (delivered using the same old business models).

Sound Principles Prevail
The next 11 chapters of Thinking Inside The Box describe dozens of business examples that illustrate the importance of business fundamentals, even when young upstarts believe they have found new business plans that defy them. As Cheyfitz demonstrates from the vantage point of hindsight, history shows that sound principles always prevail over fads and hype. For example, when he writes, "The first business of business is making money," he explains how those who forgot this basic concept quickly lost their footing in the muck of the "new" economy, only to learn the hard way that nothing beats profits and planning to keep a company afloat.

Other lessons from Thinking Inside The Box include:

  • It is far better (and more certain) to cut expenses than to pray for sales.
  • Give customers what they want, not what you want to give them.
  • You should be selling all the time.
  • When it comes to people, you can hire smart and get out of the way, or you can run yourself ragged micromanaging.

Why We Like This Book
Using examples from business and military history, Thinking Inside the Box offers numerous clearly stated reasons why history should never be forgotten when running a business. In a sane and balanced explanation of how business should be viewed and conducted, Cheyfitz has created a survival guidebook for leaders, managers and entrepreneurs that provides an antidote for all of the fads that have emerged and floundered over the past decade. His fresh insights and examples reveal crucial lessons that can be learned from them, as well as timely reminders of business lessons that must not be forgotten in the quest for success. Copyright © 2003 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.48(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

Preface: Read This First

Don't Do Anything Stupid

By early 2002, many of the world's major media companies (along with quite a few telecommunications companies, investment firms, and various other businesses) were in big trouble. Vivendi Universal, AOL Time Warner, and Bertelsmann all ousted top managers after suffering disastrous reversals in market value. It was during this dismaying period that Mel Karmazin, president and COO of media giant Viacom, devised the most reassuring message he could muster to calm the fears of his jittery investors.

Karmazin's message contained none of the ideas that had set the business world on fire during the previous decade. It was not a pledge to change relentlessly with changing times, or a hymn to thinking outside the box, or a nod to the revolutionary power of technology, or an invocation of the godlike qualities of his CEO. Instead, displayed bravely on the T-shirt Karmazin wore for a conference call with his big institutional investors was the promise: "We won't do anything stupid."

As modest as it was, no message could have been more welcome and appropriate in the post-new-economy agony of the time. Simply by avoiding stupid moves, Karmazin and his boss, Sumner Redstone, Viacom's chairman and controlling shareholder, had steered the corporation into the top spot among media conglomerates. In mid-2002, Viacom -- owner of such leading entertainment brands as Paramount, MTV, CBS, Blockbuster Video, and Simon & Schuster (the publisher of this book) -- was the most valuable media company on the planet, mostly because it had avoided expensive gambles on unproven fads.

During the 1990s, Viacomturned down the opportunity to pour money into countless Internet-based start-ups, and Redstone turned away the hyper-expensive America Online deal that Time Warner later swallowed, much to its shareholders' ultimate regret. In short, Viacom stuck to the tried-and-true basics of its businesses, and Viacom's managers kept their thinking firmly inside the box.

In undertaking the research for this book, I found it impossible to avoid the conclusion that much of the business world essentially lost its head during the 1990s, making a series of moves so stupid that it seems -- in retrospect, at least -- they should have been obvious to anyone. It is clear that this recent stupidity was both a reprise of past stupidity and a total failure to heed the lessons of commercial or human history. Almost without exception, the biggest errors were based on the notion that the foundations of sound business were being radically altered by technological and social change. But that notion, which has been briefly entertained by virtually every generation of humanity, has always proven to be a monumental overstatement. This latest time around was no exception.

Consider for a moment the groundbreaking work of Herbert A. Simon, one of the twentieth century's outstanding economic thinkers. Born in 1916 in Milwaukee, educated in the public schools, Simon found himself during the Great Depression at the University of Chicago, where he latched onto the notion that would form the center of his life's work: "The social sciences, I thought, needed the same kind of rigor and the same mathematical underpinnings that had made the 'hard' sciences so brilliantly successful," he wrote years later. So he set about training himself to be "a mathematical social scientist." An undergraduate term paper on decision-making in business organizations led to graduate work on the same topic and then to a research fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. As one culmination of his research, Simon published a book in 1947 titled, simply, Administrative Behavior, which created a firm foundation for understanding the complex ways in which decisions are made inside corporations and other "economic organizations." When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explained in 1978 its reasons for honoring Simon with the Nobel Prize in economics, it cited Administrative Behavior, calling it an "epoch-making book."

The ideas expressed in Simon's work are fascinating -- he rejects the notion of the omnipotent CEO and replaces it with a model of multiple decision-makers limited by their knowledge and their loyalties. But what is even more fascinating is the unwavering persistence of his ideas. Writing the introduction to the fourth edition of Administrative Behavior, which was published on the book's fiftieth anniversary, Simon has this to say: "In this fourth edition, as in the previous ones, the text of the original work is kept intact, for there is essentially nothing in it that I wish to retract."

As Simon explains, his book hasn't changed in more than half a century because people and the way they make decisions haven't changed. "Human organizations, quite large ones, have been with us for at least four thousand years," he writes. "Although the physical technology a modern army employs is wholly different from the technology employed by the armies of Nineveh or Egypt or X'ian, the processes people used in these ancient armies to make decisions or to manage people appear quite familiar to us and largely unchanged over the centuries."

It is the premise of this book that, in business, the recurring disenchantment with so-called old ideas is completely misguided; the search for some revolution that will change everything is essentially wasteful; the relentless insistence on "thinking outside the box" is wrongheaded.

I began this book with the conviction that we can't think outside the box or even inside the box unless we have a very precise idea of what the box is. A look at business past and present reveals the existence of certain unchanging, timeless rules -- the rules that I collectively call "The Box." Among the planks that make up The Box, for example, are the millennia-old rules of organizational decision-making uncovered by Simon. Ignoring the established rules of The Box is neither innovative nor entrepreneurial nor revolutionary. It is, to borrow a word from Mel Karmazin's T-shirt, stupid. Plain and simple.

The welcome corollary of this premise is that there is no substance to the myth of the Oz-like CEO. Managing an enterprise requires neither genius nor constant invention (let alone reinvention). Rather, good management largely consists of paying attention to history and present reality while applying hard work and prudence. This is the gospel of business -- that management is a set of skills to be learned, not a matter of divine inspiration or magical foresight, and that the list of requisite skills has been consistent over a long period of time. Given the right set of rules, we can all manage from one quarter to the next, providing something useful to society and making a reasonable profit in return, while avoiding doing too much that is stupid. That's what this book is about.

Copyright © 2003 by Kirk Cheyfitz

Meet the Author

Kirk Cheyfitz An award-winning reporter and successful businessman, Cheyfitz has built the world's first and largest global custom publishing network for McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, the world's largest advertising agency. After only four years, The Publishing Agency International has full-service companies in New York, Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Madrid, and Seattle. Cheyfitz was a Pulitzer finalist for investigative work at the Detroit Free Press and won the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Bronze Medallion for investigative reporting, among many national and regional journalism honors. He started a city magazine in Detroit in the mid-1980s, making a seamless transition from journalist to self-taught entrepreneur. Next he acquired Chicago magazine and built a publishing division with some 1,200 employees and more than 20 operating entities. Cheyfitz lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his wife, Ellen, and daughter Amy.

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