It's a cliché for a reason, but that doesn't make it any less real—or easy to do. Thinking outside the box is one of the most difficult challenges for any business, especially for established organizations. Patterns and systems have a way of taking over, which is why new talent's fresh eyes are a briefly held superpower.
So, how can you break out of the routine and think creatively? In this post, we'll cover what it means to get outside the box, why it's important, and some concrete steps for thinking with a creative mindset.
What does it mean to think outside the box?
Thinking outside the box is an idiom that refers to thinking in a creative and innovative way, often by looking at a problem from a different perspective. It is a metaphor for approaching problems and situations with an open mind and thinking unconventionally.
This type of thinking can be used to make difficult decisions, come up with alternative solutions, or to find the best path forward. It is important to be able to think outside the box in order to remain competitive and see opportunities that may otherwise be overlooked.
Where does the phrase "think outside the box" come from?
As we’ve established, the phrase "thinking outside the box" is often used to describe a type of creative thinking that goes beyond conventional or established ideas. The origins of the phrase can be traced back to a well-known puzzle called the nine dots puzzle.
The nine dots puzzle consists of nine dots arranged in a square shape, and the challenge is to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines without lifting the pen from the paper. Most people's first instinct is to stay within the boundaries of the square shape, but the solution requires going beyond the boundaries of the box.
Benefits of outside-the-box thinking
Because thinking outside the box can help to foster creativity and innovation, it often results in new and improved ideas, products, and services. It can also lead to better problem-solving, increased productivity, and more effective communication.
Thinking outside the box allows you to:
Generate new and creative ideas that challenge the status quo
Solve problems more efficiently and effectively
Identify opportunities that may have been overlooked
Develop more innovative products and services
Enhance productivity and performance
Improve communication between team members and departments
Foster a culture of creativity and innovation
Stand out from other competitors in the marketplace
Why it's so difficult to think outside the box
The comfort zone
Thinking outside the box can be difficult because it requires you to step out of your comfort zone and think in a creative and unconventional way. People tend to be creatures of habit and can become stuck in the same ways of thinking — these are the limiting patterns that we referenced above, and they can be difficult (nearly impossible) to avoid once you become part of an existing system.
Inside the box, it’s comfortable. But when you get out of the box, you find innovative solutions.
Try breaking out of the comfort zone with these brainstorming techniques. Keep reading for more techniques and templates.
It also requires one to take risks and explore ideas that may not be immediately obvious or popular. It is often easier to rely on established methods and solutions, rather than to invest the time and effort into exploring new ideas.
By fostering an environment based on psychological safety, you create room for all your team members to contribute to the best of their potential and you’ll be more likely to uncover new, innovative ways to solve complex problems.
Finally, it’s difficult to think out of the box because it requires a willingness to challenge your own thinking and re-examine established beliefs. This can be uncomfortable and even threatening, as it may require individuals and organizations to acknowledge that their current approach is not working and that they need to try something different.
Patterns and systems have a way of taking over, which is why bringing in fresh eyes via management consultants is so common.
A foolproof guide for thinking outside the box
While it may seem like a chimera at times, thinking outside the box is actually the result of a series of intentional steps that anyone can take to solve problems. To kickstart your team’s creative thinking, you should:
1. Choose your participants
Assemble a list of participants with diverse backgrounds and experience areas, so that your solutions are more likely to consider every angle of the problem.
2. Get together
Bring your group together using a shared digital space (dare we suggest, a mural perhaps?), where everyone can record their ideas and contribute, regardless of whether you’re in person, working remotely, or in a hybrid work environment. This has the added benefit of providing a lasting record of your meeting and any ideas and action items you may want to reference in the future.
3. Frame the problem
Frame the problem that you’re trying to solve, making sure to give it context — have your team brainstorm reasons why you’re being asked to solve this problem, and select the answer that you feel will lead to the best discussion.
4. Craft a challenge statement
Have your team begin translating the problem into a challenge statement, e.g., ‘video game sales are down — how might we enhance the experience of purchasing our game?’ Select the challenge statement that offers broad opportunity for discussion.
5. Build in time for solo brainstorming
Build in time for individual ideation — have each person consider a solution and develop a concept poster. Allowing time for individuals to work on their own helps prevent groupthink and self-editing, which can limit the number of ideas.
6. Present ideas and gather initial feedback
Have each team member present their ideas and gather feedback from the group, and add any refinements they may want to make before the final round of analysis.
7. Critique your solutions and decide on next steps
Once the concept posters have been finalized after a round of feedback and additional edits, conduct a critique of the concepts and decide on next steps as a group. Use this as a time to remind the group of the original problem and challenge statement, select the best possible solutions, and determine action items and next steps for your team.
Tackle complex challenges and explore bold ideas
Thinking outside the box requires an environment of psychological safety and an openness to explore new ideas. Once you’ve created this environment, there are a variety of techniques that can be used to stimulate creative thinking. These techniques include brainstorming, role-playing, and mind mapping.
By incorporating these techniques into your problem-solving process and encouraging your team to think creatively, you can uncover new solutions to complex challenges and explore bold new ideas.