Who says “Thinking Outside the Box” is a good thing?

Updated: Dec 12, 2019


That godawful phrase

If you are still using the term Thinking Outside the Box – I have two questions for you: Where the hell is the box? and Who says thinking 'outside the box' is a good thing? Thinking outside box (or simply The Box) has become a godawful phrase that makes my eyes spin counter-clockwise in my head. It has become a meaningless phrase and what is worse is that the vast majority of people who use it don’t know what it means – so let’s begin at the beginning or should I say the beginnings – because there are two!

How was Thinking Outside the Box born?

The phrase is thought to have been coined somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s. The term was meant to denote thinking outside the rigid confines of the accepted thinking and being more imaginative in thinking and problem solving. Which in itself sounds like a great idea, but this modern concept actually has its roots in a much older 1914 puzzle called The Egg Puzzle or the Nine Dots Puzzle, from a book of puzzles by Sam Loyd (Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers)).

By Sam Loyd - Original scan online here cropped and brightened, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1013387

It all began with a puzzle

The puzzle challenged players to try to draw four straight lines between all nine eggs (or dots) without lifting their pencils from the page. Interestingly one of the easiest solutions to this puzzle is to – you guessed it - draw lines on the ‘outside’ of the box - meaning around its parameter – hence the words ‘outside the box’ was a huge hint to solving the puzzle.

Why was the puzzle such a teaser? When shown the puzzle, most people saw the outside frame of dots as an edge or boundary and not as the solution to the puzzle. And it was simply a hop, skip and jump to using this as a metaphor to the imaginary boundary people believe exists between themselves and great ideas. See a solution to the puzzle here: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/think-outside-the-box-solution.html

What makes me crazy is the notion that thinking outside the box means, for many people, unrestricted and unconstrained creativity, when I believe that is far, far from the truth. To solve the egg puzzle you need a well-defined problem and precise explanations and rules. In fact, at the time the puzzles were sold, people complained that Sam Loyd did not explain the puzzle succinctly enough – he did not include the words “straight lines” in his explanation – so people needed to look at the box drawing in order to understand the puzzle.

Corporate consultants and coaches have been using this term since the 1970s to push employees to think more creatively and then the general public got a whiff of this catchy phrase and it’s been overused, misused and down-right abused. Why? One of the most important elements of The Box is that you need to understand the rules to solve the puzzle – while most people think the statement means don’t follow rules – just do your own thing without constraints.

The take away (and I don't mean food)

What I want business owners to do is stop using The Box as an excuse to work without a plan and to learn The Box's original 1912 lesson: learn the rules, understand the concept, work at solving your problems and then work the plan to succeed.

I think Pablo Picasso said it best: ”learn the rules like a pro and break them like an artist”.

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Image credits Pixabay , Wix and Sidney Eisner