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Think Outside The Box: An Exploration of Daniel Pink, Innovation, and The Candle Problem


During a talk at The Aspen Institute, posted on YouTube in 2015 , Pink explores the idea of the Candle Problem, where people are faced by a candle, a box of push pins and a matchbox. The task was simple: work out how to make it so when the candle is lit, that the wax won’t drip on the table, only with the items in front of you. Of course, for those of us who are already familiar with the idea, will remember that the solution is to attach the box which once contained the push pins, to the wall, beside the table, and place the candle inside, so when lit, the wax simply pools in the box.


And, what was even more interesting, was when this experiment took place, adding monetary gains into the equation ended up producing poorer results, with people unable to see the solution in front of them.

However, alternatively, if the push pins were not in the box at all, and simply sat separately, the result appeared much more straight-forward, allowing those who participated to simply implement cause and effect rational thinking to realise that in order to avoid the wax pooling on the table, you wouldn’t even need to use the push pins at all, you could simply just put the candle in the box and boom, done. Of course, some people went the extra mile and did suspend the box, but, it was considered exactly that, going above and beyond.


In Pink’s book, he discusses the idea of being motivated by the idea of autonomy (freedom to act on your own and pursue your own interests and passions at work), mastery (the idea of constantly improving and honing your skills by having the goal-post pushed out of your comfort zone, constantly) and purpose, (the idea of feeling like outside of the company machine, you are making a difference). Of course, every individual would likely rank these ideas in a different triad of importance. (I, personally would likely rank purpose above mastery for my own experiences!)


But even when being allowed to act autonomously, in an agile workplace, coming up with ideas is not always straightforward. If you give the same people, the same tools to get the candle off the table, some will simply put the candle in the box, others may flip the box, and elevate the candle, running the risk of excess wax dripping along the edges of the box, to provide more light, and others, would suspend the candle in its entirety.


This is, obviously, because we are all individuals with our own thought processes, and we therefore tackle each task in our own way.


The same can be said for the workplace, if you were to give two members of staff a display to put up in the window, the designs they produced would not be the same. One may have organised the display to appear more scenic, while the other focused on stacking the products in a uniform manner, with pyramids of items lining the window, their logos all front facing etc. The ability to come up with unique ideas to promote and showcase a product in a store demonstrates the scope of our creative processes, such is autonomy.

Pink acknowledged during his talk that “today in the work most people are doing, [superiors] don’t want compliance [from their employees], they want engagement”, and in order to put the foundations in place for such innovations to occur, many corporations must change their perspectives:


What was once considered a discrepancy between a plan and the end product, that would have likely been slandered, due to discrepancy being synonymous with failure, should be viewed in a new lens. Failures are simply hurdles to overcome in pursuit of progress. Of course, the nature of a failure is never likely to be positive, but the outcomes of addressing them can be monumental. Where would we be with space exploration if NASA had cut their losses after the Apollo 1 tragedy? Well, we wouldn’t have helicopter-esque drones on Mars attempting flight!


These are the ideas that agile working promotes, working in pursuit of progressing; accepting failures as part of the process and focusing on feedback, and the process of learning from previous mistakes, discrepancies and issues to create successful and efficient products. Let’s make it so your business skyrockets!



Based in London, U.K., and founded in 2016 by Arvind Mishra The Agile Works (www.TheAgileWorks.com), is an up-and-coming recruitment and Agile consulting company. Arvind is a Certified SAFe SPC and regularly delivers both private and public SAFe certification workshops.

He is a design thinking expert, Sr. enterprise, portfolio Agile Coach with over a decade of experience working as an Agile coach in diverse industries such as banking, pharma, retail, auto, oil, gas, consulting and government.

The Agile Works; a small team of three strive to help shape the leadership's mind-set and values in readiness for their business transformation journey challenges. With Arvind at the helm, we strive to provide you with the agility tools to make your company that can thrive, and not just survive.

To book a consultation, or for any enquiries, you can contact Arvind via the following email address: arvind@theagileworks.com


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