Thinking outisde the box

The following may seem a somewhat circumlocutory, but occasionally I will still hear encouragement to “think outside the box”. I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood all the angles here. I know that it means that one should shun conventional wisdom in order to come up with innovative solutions to various problems/challenges. But, whenever I was told (one is rarely ever asked) to think outside the box, there was seldom any example given, and if there was, then it may have only remotely been related to the issue at hand, and virtually never gave a clue as to what the “box” actually was. In some ways, the very thought of “thinking outside the box” evoked an even boxier box.

So what does “thinking outside the box” mean to you? Do you get better at it with practice? Are there still parameters in a professional setting? Can you be too far outside the box? Also (and I am most curious about this), what is “the box”? Give examples, but if you do, see if you can indicate what represented the box, and what represented the the thing outside of the box, and why it was better than the thing inside the box?

I think each question begets another question, so let’s just open this to discussion.

(FWIW, I tried to do a search on this subject, but from the phrase “thinking outside the box” the word “thinking” was the only word the engine would accept.)

The box is your mind closed to new ideas. It is staying in the problem and not the solution. To think outside of your own comfort zone and actually consider something which may be new or foreign to you as a solution. It takes courage and flexibility and open mindedness.

Well put Perciful. Some will say that you need to step back and look at the problem, not the solution. Solutions can be dead ends.

In a similar vein, “can’t see the forest for the trees”. I have this happen to me a lot in my work and in my everyday life. A programming problem is solved while I’m not sitting in front of my computer. This often happens when I am driving home at night thinking about, well driving, and the solution hits me.

It’s about seeing things not for what they are, but what they could be. Not what it is designed to do, but what it does do. How many of us have used concrete blocks for shelving, or a butter knife for a screw driver?

I roll my eyes when I hear this. It’s one of those overused buzz word phrases that unintelligent people use to sound smarter, like “value-added,” “new media,” “web 2.0,” or “synergy.” These are all terms that have been overused into meaninglessness; most never really meant anything to begin with.

All it means is be original. That’s it.

I think of the “box” as the the Problem as Originally Defined.

Most problems are defined already in terms of their anticipated solution. The conceptualization of the problem puts a “box” around it.

• These wires from all your peripheral devices are making an unsightly tangled mess. You have to come up with a way of organizing that mess of cables. (Actually maybe it’s time to go with wireless mouse and keyboard)

• You have to come up with a way to integrate each user’s Address Book app with the addresses saved in the database. (How about instead we integrate a corporate multi-user Address Book INTO the database and folks quit using local Address Book apps?)

• You’re meal-planning and need to plan up to 4 different suppers each night because eldest kid is on hi-protein body-building, middle kid is a vegan, youngest kid is picky eater and wants mostly “comfort foods”, and spouse is a diabetic. (So stock up on staples and let each person cook their own and stop trying to be a restaurant)

Not much to add, except that thinking outside of the box has meant looking for an effective solution that addresses the problem rather than perpetuating a traditional solution.

In the days before it crashed and burned, Enron apparently used the phrase quite a bit to pump up its workforce. After its crash, a reporter (from Newsweek, I think) noted that if one was constantly pushed to think outside of the box, then maybe there was something wrong with the box to begin with. In other words, find an environment where “thinking outside of the box” is irrelevant because you’re open to any workable solution that solves the problem, rather than finding one that breaks a supposed barrier.

If you can’t solve a problem because your hands are tied, you’re not thinking outside the box.

If you come up with a solution that requires someone else to do something they don’t want to, changing a process that people are comfortable if unhappy with, or something that your boss, your boss’s boss, or anyone up the chain does not like for any reason, including made-up reasons or no reason at all, of course, you’re reminded that “that’s not the way things work around here” and squelched.

Basically, “think outside the box” means “I want you to solve this problem in a way that doesn’t make problems for me, and stop bothering me about it.” Whether or not this is feasible or even possible is not really relevant. Or, it can also mean “I know this is going to go very wrong and you are my scapegoat. This is me setting you up to fail so it’s not my head on the line when these ridiculous demands can’t magically occur.”

Believe me: people who say this don’t actually want you to think outside the box. They just want you to stop pointing out how small and confining and smelly it is inside this here box. Remember, bosses (at least the kind who use meaningless catchphrases and buzzwords) don’t want people smart enough to call them on it on their team.

The original box is that puzzle with a 3x3 grid of dots, and you’re supposed to draw four lines that cross through all 9 dots without raising your pencil. The solution requires you to extend some of the lines outside the box.

The OP needs to read some Edward De Bono.

My favorite right now is “take the initiative”. If any unsolved problem is found, the messenger is blamed for not taking the initiative. If a problem is found in the course of someone actually taking the initiative to solve a different problem, the problem-solver is to blame for not taking the initiative to solve that problem, too. If you’re aware of a problem that’s not fixed yet, you’re not taking the initiative. See how that works?

It’s mostly OK because I’m on top of things but it really irks the hell out of me to be asked random questions about some other thing and get blamed because I haven’t solved some other problem related to this problem which I’m trying to fix right now!

It’s not just about work. Not at all. Thinking outside of the box is used everyday. Use the options available to you to solve a problem. Simple as that. We all do it more than we think.

The commonly listed example of (literally) thinking outside of the box is the Candle Problem

That’s where I first heard of the phrase. And in case you can’t visualize this example, the problem and one possible solution are on Wikipedia.

Yep. Note that the box here is not dictated or defined by the instructions for the puzzle, but is subconsciously imposed by the would-be solver. Thinking outside the box entails dropping assumptions that one is not required to harbor.

?? That’s mind-boggling to me. What piss-poor excuse for a search engine was that?

On Google, you can put thinking outside the box or just outside the box in the window and the first hit is the one that Dewey Finn linked. It looks like you’d benefit from trying Google first.

It was once a useful phrase about not letting hidden assumptions and entrenched ideas limit your creativity, but has now become a cliche usually spouted by people who want to sound smarter than they are.

Next time someone refers to ‘thinking outside the box’, ask them, ‘Why does it always have to be a box?’.

Or ask them why, given that they are supposed to be encouraging creative thought, they are recycling dull cliches and not coming up with any original wording of their own?