Think Outside The Box

The big catchphrase for creativity and self improvement, has been the overused term “think outside the box”. The term is thought to originate from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the “nine dots” puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking.

Most everyone has heard the cliche and I’ve heard this term used by clients, marketing managers and others I’ve worked with who feel that this is a good explanation for the direction they are looking for in a particular creative project. When I hear, “think outside the box on this project”. It makes me feel somewhat anxious. Who’s box – your box? My box? A cultural box… the world, what do you want? Who’s defining this box?


A bit of History on the ‘Box’

This got me thinking more about this and looking into what the term really means. The term actually originated from a nine-dot puzzle from a psychologist named J. P. Guilford. He conducted a study of creativity and divergent thinking (another post on this soon) and how it ties into creativity. However one of his most famous studies was the nine-dot puzzle.

He challenged research subjects to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines without lifting their pencils from the page. Today many people are familiar with this puzzle and its solution. In the 1970s, however, very few were even aware of its existence, even though it had been around for almost a century.

At the first stages, all the participants in Guilford’s original study censored their own thinking by limiting the possible solutions to those within the imaginary square. Only 20 percent managed to break out of the illusory confinement and continue their lines in the white space surrounding the dots.


Eighty percent of the participants were effectively blinded by the boundaries of the square and this led Guilford and the readers of his books to jump to the conclusion that creativity requires you to go outside the box. In the 1970s creativity gurus everywhere were teaching managers how to think outside the box. And surprisingly this is still a popular term.

Flatten the Box – Beyond the Obvious

The bottom line (or box) for thinking outside the box is really about looking further than the obvious. There are a variety of sources, books and more that you can find on creative thinking. However, you can find some inspirational tips for ways to escape the box and do more creative thinking here at Wikihow.

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