Don’t Think Outside the Box – Expand It, Compress It, or Build a New One

The phrase “Think Outside the Box” is thrown around a lot.  It can be helpful: open brainstorming, writing down everything you think of no matter how out there or implausible it is, can lead to some unique solutions as you process the ideas, attempting to make them feasible.  However, what is meant by thinking outside the box is really removing the constraints that you place, consciously or subconsciously, on potential solutions.  It may be that you have ingrained prejudices about how things should be done, or that the industry standards are unknowingly holding you back from finding the best solutions.  This is why many times an innovation in an industry comes from someone new to that industry.  They aren’t prejudiced by “how things have always been done,” and can thus see an “obvious solution” that alluded the brightest in the field.

The Danger in Thinking Outside the Box

"Outside the Box" isn't always the most productive place

“Outside the Box” is a BIG area.  There are infinite ideas outside of the box because there are no constraints.  It can create too much noise, drowning out the potential solutions in a sea of implausible or unhelpful ideas.  A helpful alternate exercise is to break down the box that you are in.  Determine what constraints make up the boundaries of your box and figure out which need to be thrown out and which should be kept.  This will build you a bigger box, which hopefully contains the solution you seek, as you remove those unnecessary constraints.

If you determine that there are no constraints that should be thrown out, then you can compress the box by finding additional constraints to add to it.  If you are accurate that there are no incorrect assumptions, then the solution exists “inside the box” but the box may just be too big to easily find it.  The noise of all the potential solutions from a too-large box is drowning out the real solutions.  So hone in on the solutions by compressing the box, raising the signal-to-noise ratio until the solution is easier to find.

Another method is to find a new box.  Start from zero assumptions and add constraints to form a new box.  Logically think through what constraints should be in place and why instead of blindly putting the standard constraints in place, which would simply build the original box again.  Perhaps the new box will yield solutions that were hidden from you before.  If you only put in place the appropriate boundaries, then you will still have the potential solutions inside your box, but the box won’t be infinitely large like the area “outside the box.”

One Response to “Don’t Think Outside the Box – Expand It, Compress It, or Build a New One”

  1. […] are formed, ideas are brainstormed, and prototypes are built and demonstrated.  The idea is to get out of the box of the products you are currently working on and spark creativity by being forced to go very fast, […]

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