People talk about the need to think outside of the box as though everyone understands what that means. It is assumed to simply mean being more creative and open minded in your thinking. But shouldn’t we ask what the “box” is that we want to get out of?
We’ll get to an answer for that in a moment. First, here is a simple creative thinking test you should take to better understand what follows. Choose from the list below which parts are necessary for a car, and write down the numbers of those items:
1. Carpeting… 2. Wheels… 3. Mirrors… 4. Trunk… 5. Radio… 6. Seats… 7. Steering wheel… 8. Roof… 9. Ash trays… 10. Keys… 11. Gas tank… 12. Glove box… 13. Brake pedal… 14. Seat belts
How many items are on your list? Some readers may have just two or three things noted as necessary. Those of you who saw where this was leading are looking at a blank piece of paper. The whole process of looking at what is “necessary” involves making assumptions, of course, and this is a clue to what the “box” is. We have a whole set of ideas about how things “should be” or “have to be” or “always are” when we look at anything around us. This is the box that our thinking is often trapped in.
To think outside of the box, then, isn’t just designing a better rear-view mirror, but questioning the assumption that a car needs one to begin with. Perhaps a monitor showing a camera view of everything behind the car would work as well or better. Of course, you could also get creative in designing a mirror too. You might question whether it needs to be inside, for example. It could be a periscope that gives a view inside from the other mirror up above the roof outside. In either case, the point is that to get out of the box you go beyond the limitations imposed by what you and others already think about the subject.
By the way, if you argue that some of the things on the list really are necessary, you really need this article. For example, some might say that whatever is designed in place of seal belts, they are still required by law, and so necessary. Of course, this just points to another assumption: that cars have to be designed according to current regulations. Thinking outside the box means challenging that preconceived notion too. It is possible after all, that laws can be changed.
Of course ideas or changes are not automatically good just because they are new. But among all the possible ideas and inventions that could actually be good and useful, some of them will always be outside the normal assumptions being made – outside of the box. Sure, there are a ton of bad ideas there too, but we only find the good ones if we get out there and winnow through them.
How do you do that? There are actually many ways to stimulate more creative thinking. There are brain boosters, certain environments that are more conducive to creativity, and dozens of good problem-solving and idea-generating techniques you can learn. For now, you can start right here, with what this lesson about the “box” suggests: If the box is built from your assumptions and preconceived ideas, then you can break out by attacking those building blocks.
Specifically, when approaching a creative project, write down all the beliefs, feelings and ideas you and others have about the subject. Then ask why each of these exists, and what might replace them. Get at the roots of the matter too, by challenging the premises.
Here’s an example of the latter: A creative discussion about how to build a school is premised on the idea that the school should be built. Is that true? Perhaps an existing building could be used, or maybe there are ways to teach now without the students congregating in one place. In the end the school may be built, but it can’t hurt to ask the questions, and if there is a better solution out there, you may need to think outside of the box like this to find it.