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Thinking outside the box: 8 ways to become a creative problem solver

July 28, 2022 - 13 min read

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What does thinking outside the box mean?

3 simple examples of thinking outside the box

Why thinking outside the box is important

8 ways to think outside the box

What if for every plateau we reach, resource limit we hit — or even every challenge we face — we stopped and asked: “what if?” What if we challenged the rules and started thinking outside the box?

That’s exactly what 17 smart software developers did in Oregon in the spring of 2000. Martin Fowler, Jim Highsmith, and 15 other colleagues convened and broke the rules of software development. They thought up a concept that completely erased the standing software development rules to speed up software time to market. That concept is the agile methodology we know today.

But what does it mean to think outside the box — to encourage workplace autonomy and innovation? After all, isn’t there value in leaving things as they are? Even when you’re not trying to disrupt an entire industry, thinking out of the box can make a difference throughout your entire organization. Read on to learn what that looks like, why it’s important, and how to think outside the box yourself.

What does thinking outside the box mean?

Thinking outside the box is a metaphor often used to describe different, unconventional, novel, or creative thinking. 

It shows up in simple things like using paper to make crafts — instead of just writing on them — for example. Or in more complex forms e.g thinking up concepts like agile methodology for problem-solving.

According to Fast Company, the term came into use in the 1970s. Management consultants would give clients a nine-dot puzzle and ask them to connect the dots with only four lines.

nine-dots-puzzle-thinking-outside-the-box

Naturally, this task requires some lateral thinking, so the consultants would encourage their clients to “think outside the box.” In this case, in order to come up with an innovative solution, they needed to literally look beyond the box and create something else.

One thing stands out for us from this exercise. At first, you see a box. To draw those four lines, you have to first exhaust the options within the box. Only then can you realize that the problem is the box itself. You come to that realization after understanding the box and uncovering its limitations. 

To think outside of the box is to fully understand the status quo — then challenge it.

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3 simple examples of thinking outside the box

From the home to the workplace, and innovative ideas that drive human evolution, here’s what thinking outside the box looks like:

  • At home - a better way to fold clothes: Marie Kondo thought up a way to fold clothes to save storage space and to see every piece of clothing at a glance.
  • At work - doubled app downloads on a $35 Budget: In a viral marketing stunt, Thursday intern, Anya Jackson cuffed herself to a pole to generate downloads. All she spent was money for the cuffs, board, and marker.
  • In innovation - the wheel and axle: Humans invented the wheel, later improving on a simple design to create the axle, plow, and later the engine.

Why thinking outside the box is important

Thinking outside the box helps you to solve challenging problems. It allows you to look beyond a defined scope of relevance to find answers that would not exist otherwise.

The agile methodology for example came from looking beyond established software development procedures. The result of adopting agile? Faster software time-to-market and increased profits.

Thinking outside the box also forces you to scan your horizon. And when you scan your horizon, you become aware of impending threats and opportunities. That strategic foresight keeps you ahead of profit or loss curves because you’re able to be proactive.

Companies are beginning to understand that if we don’t adapt to try new things, we stagnate — and sometimes even lose our position to the people and organizations who choose to dare. The value of having different perspectives on a team can’t be overstated. In fact, it’s the true benefit of diversity in the workplace. Diversity of experience, divergent thinking, and a willingness to take risks encourages people to grow. Thinking small keeps us small.

When we stay in the box, risk-taking, growth, and challenging the status quo all feel much scarier. To become an effective leader, valuable employee, or team member, think outside the box.

Let’s explore how we can use these tips to foster creativity at work and everywhere else.

1. Do a brain dump

Brain dumping helps you get ideas out of your head and onto a paper to provide clarity and jumpstart the thinking process.

You write down your thoughts as quickly as they come without worrying about grammar or making any sense at all. This forces you to focus on what matters most: getting those thoughts out of your head and onto paper (or word processor!).

It helps you pen down ideas that you may discard as ridiculous if you paused to think about them. You'll be able to organize and evaluate all these ideas later to come up with a good solution. 

2. Broaden your scope of relevance

When you're trying to solve a problem, it can be tempting to stick to facts that are directly relevant to the particular problem. But that’s not enough. Sticking to a narrow view of relevance prevents you from seeing opportunities that may be right in front of you. 

Rather than being closed-minded, you should be open to new ideas and perspectives. The first step is getting used to thinking about things that are outside your comfort zone.

A simple example. Let’s say you need to sharpen a pencil but the pencil sharpener is broken. If you limit yourself to thinking about fixing the sharpener that may take too long. But when you broaden your scope of relevance, you go from looking for a sharpener to looking for a sharp object. Only then do you pay attention to the scissors, knife, or other household objects that can be used as a sharpener in a pinch.

team-brainstorming-at-desk-thinking-outside-the-box

3. Box yourself in with a timer 

Does your brain move into creative overdrive to beat approaching deadlines? This might be the perfect technique for you.

When faced with a challenging problem, set an arbitrary deadline for yourself. Next, find someone (or something) to hold you accountable. You may ask a friend or colleague, or wager some money for challenges that will take days to months. You could set a timer on your phone for smaller problems.

4. Work backward from the goal

Working backward from the goal allows you to focus more on the outcome than the process. As such, you give yourself room to get creative with the process.

You’ll be able to design key milestones that you can focus on separately as well. This allows you to break the problem down into tiny solvable bits.

Write down the outcome on a pad or piece of paper. Then write the milestones you need to reach to achieve that goal. Keep breaking the milestones down until there’s just one task available per milestone.

5. Ask someone outside your field

One of the biggest reasons for boxed-in thinking is because you’re too close to the rules to see anything else. Ask someone who doesn’t know the rules of your industry what they would do to solve the problem. You’ll get some new perspectives you’d never see on your own.

You could ask your parent, spouse, friend, or even a stranger on the street. You could also ask the end users of your product or service. For example, if you're designing a new software system, the people who will use it will have some of the best ideas. If you're designing a new business process, collaborate cross-functionally. Go to the people who are doing the work of designing or promoting your project and ask them what they think. 

6. Ask a child

Children have an uncorrupted view of the world and how things work. To them, everything is possible. If you talk to a child about your problem, they’ll likely share ideas you’d never come up with on your own.

Maybe some of those ideas will be over the top or involve copious amounts of sugar. Nevertheless, talking to children may be some of the most creative brainstorming you can do. 

child-thinking-holding-paper-thinking-outside-the-box

7. Problem solve for someone else

Solving (or attempting to solve) other people’s problems can help you come up with ideas to resolve your own. You exercise your brain without pressure and get a thrill from problem-solving. That thrill should keep your brain in heightened problem-solving mode.

If the problem is close enough to your own, you might find patterns you can use for yourself.

8. Brainstorm with colleagues

Brainstorming with colleagues can be a great way to spark creativity. Gather colleagues in your office, an empty conference room, or on a Zoom call and brainstorm together. 

Summarize the problem, give people 10 to 15 minutes to think, then allow everyone to share their ideas in turns. The aim is to come up with as many possible solutions — even the ones that seem unlikely. Unlikely approaches to challenges often yield innovative ways of solving them.

Whatever you do, think twice: First in the box, then outside the box

Because outside-the-box thinking often breaks the rules and may sound ridiculous, embracing it can be hard. The first person who pitched the idea of a wheel in prehistoric times probably got some strange looks.

What about Thomas Edison? Light bulb? No way! But without thinking outside the box, these people wouldn’t have changed the world in the way they did.

What’s more? Creativity, achieved through outside-the-box thinking, is a characteristic of good leaders. The values and traits that leaders display tend to have a way of embedding themselves into team culture. In other words, when you demonstrate a willingness to think out of the box, your team will feel inspired and empowered to do the same.

Master the established rules of your craft. Apply them and if they’re not yielding results, permit yourself to start thinking outside the box. You’ll be glad you did.

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Published July 28, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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