Thinking outside the box
Thinking outside the box (also thinking out of the box or thinking beyond the box) is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the "nine dots" puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking.
The catchphrase, or cliché, has become widely used in business environments, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has been referenced in a number of advertising slogans. To think outside the box is to look farther and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking beyond them.
A simplified analogy is "the box" in the commonly used phrase "thinking outside the box". What is encompassed by the words "inside the box" is analogous with the current, and often unnoticed, assumptions about a situation. Creative thinking acknowledges and rejects the accepted paradigm to come up with new ideas.
Nine dots puzzle
The origins of the phrase "thinking outside the box" are obscure; but it was popularized in part because of a nine-dot puzzle, which John Adair claims to have introduced in 1969. Management consultant Mike Vance has claimed that the use of the nine-dot puzzle in consultancy circles stems from the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle was used in-house.
The nine dots puzzle is much older than the slogan. It appears in Sam Loyd's 1914 Cyclopedia of Puzzles. In the 1951 compilation The Puzzle-Mine: Puzzles Collected from the Works of the Late Henry Ernest Dudeney, the puzzle is attributed to Dudeney himself. Sam Loyd's original formulation of the puzzle entitled it as "Christopher Columbus's egg puzzle." This was an allusion to the story of Egg of Columbus.
The puzzle proposed an intellectual challenge—to connect the dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the nine dots, and never lifting the pencil from the paper. The conundrum is easily resolved, but only by drawing the lines outside the confines of the square area defined by the nine dots themselves. The phrase "thinking outside the box" is a restatement of the solution strategy. The puzzle only seems difficult because people commonly imagine a boundary around the edge of the dot array. The heart of the matter is the unspecified barrier which is typically perceived.
Ironically, telling people to "think outside the box" does not help them think outside the box, at least not with the 9-dot problem.  This is due to the distinction between procedural knowledge (implicit or tacit knowledge) and declarative knowledge (book knowledge). For example, a non-verbal cue such as drawing a square outside the 9 dots does allow people to solve the 9-dot problem better than average. However, a very particular kind of verbalization did indeed allow people to solve the problem better than average. This is to speak in a non-judgmental, free association style. These were the instructions in a study which showed facilitation in solving the 9-dot problem:
While solving the problems you will be encouraged to think aloud. When thinking aloud you should do the following: Say whatever’s on your mind. Don’t hold back hunches, guesses, wild ideas, images, plans or goals. Speak as continuously as possible. Try to say something at least once every five seconds. Speak audibly. Watch for your voice dropping as you become involved. Don’t worry about complete sentences or eloquence. Don’t over explain or justify. Analyze no more than you would normally. Don’t elaborate on past events. Get into the pattern of saying what you’re thinking about now, not of thinking for a while and then describing your thoughts. Though the experimenter is present you are not talking to the experimenter. Instead, you are to perform this task as if you are talking aloud to yourself.
The nine-dot problem is a well-defined problem. It has a clearly stated goal, and all necessary information to solve the problem is included (connect all of the dots using four straight lines). Furthermore, well-defined problems have a clear ending (you know when you have reached the solution). Although the solution is "outside the box" and not easy to see at first, once it has been found, it seems obvious. Other examples of well-defined problems are the Tower of Hanoi and the Rubik's Cube.
In contrast, characteristics of ill-defined problems are:
- not clear what the question really is
- not clear how to arrive at a solution
- no idea what the solution looks like
An example of an ill-defined problem is "what is the essence of happiness?" The skills needed to solve this type of problem are the ability to reason and draw inferences, metacognition, and epistemic monitoring.
The metaphorical "box" in the phrase "outside the box" may be married with something real and measurable — for example, perceived budgetary or organizational constraints in a Hollywood development project. Speculating beyond its restrictive confines the box can be both:
- (a) positive— fostering creative leaps as in generating wild ideas (the conventional use of the term); and
- (b) negative— penetrating through to the "bottom of the box." James Bandrowski states that this could result in a frank and insightful re-appraisal of a situation, oneself, the organization, etc.
On the other hand, Bandrowski argues that the process of thinking "inside the box" need not be construed in a pejorative sense. It is crucial for accurately parsing and executing a variety of tasks — making decisions, analyzing data, and managing the progress of standard operating procedures, etc.
Hollywood screenwriter Ira Steven Behr appropriated this concept to inform plot and character in the context of a television series. Behr imagined a core character:
- He is going to be "thinking outside the box," you know, and usually when we use that cliche, we think outside the box means a new thought. So we can situate ourselves back in the box, but in a somewhat better position.
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- Kihn, Martin. "'Outside the Box': the Inside Story," FastCompany 1995; Random House: "Outside the Box Thinking".
- Adair, John (2007). The art of creative thinking how to be innovative and develop great ideas. London Philadelphia: Kogan Page. p. 127. ISBN 9780749452186.
- Biography of Mike Vance at Creative Thinking Association of America.
- Sam Loyd, Cyclopedia of Puzzles. (The Lamb Publishing Company, 1914)
- J. Travers, The Puzzle-Mine: Puzzles Collected from the Works of the Late Henry Ernest Dudeney. (Thos. Nelson, 1951)
- Facsimile from Cyclopedia of Puzzles - Columbus's Egg Puzzle is on right-hand page
- Daniel Kies, "English Composition 2: Assumptions: Puzzle of the Nine Dots", retr. Jun. 28, 2009.
- MAIER, NORMAN R. F.; CASSELMAN, GERTRUDE G. (1 February 1970). "LOCATING THE DIFFICULTY IN INSIGHT PROBLEMS: INDIVIDUAL AND SEX DIFFERENCES". Psychological Reports 26 (1): 103–117. doi:10.2466/pr0.19126.96.36.199.
- Lung, Ching-tung; Dominowski, Roger L. (1 January 1985). "Effects of strategy instructions and practice on nine-dot problem solving.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 11 (4): 804–811. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.11.1-4.804.
- Fleck, Jessica I.; Weisberg, Robert W. (1 September 2004). "The use of verbal protocols as data: An analysis of insight in the candle problem". Memory & Cognition 32 (6): 990–1006. doi:10.3758/BF03196876.
- Lupick, Travis. "Clone Wars proved a galactic task for production team." The Georgia Straight, August 21, 2008; "... budgetary constraints forced the production team to think outside the box in a positive way.
- TCA Tour – You Asked For It: Ira Steven Behr’s opening remarks
- Adams, J. L. (1979). Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-201-10089-1. ISBN 0-201-10089-4 (more solutions to the nine dots problem - with less than 4 lines!)
- Scheerer, M. (1972). "Problem-solving". Scientific American 208 (4): 118–128.
- Golomb, Solom W.; Selfridge, John L. (1970). "Unicursal polygonal paths and other graphs on point lattices". Pi Mu Epsilon Journal 5: 107–117. MR 0268063.
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