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Thinking outside the box is such a cliché buzzword it’s a wonder no one actually can offer an apt, consistent explanation as to what that really means. Employers love listing the ‘ability’ as a requisite for candidates when carrying out interview processes. Applicants often describe themselves as ‘out-of-the-box thinkers’ as placeholders for something else that could be truly more invigorating and capturing.

So what does it really mean, and what do employers and leaders really want when they demand out-of-the- box thinking?

…First a little history on the catchphrase


Early in the 1970’s, a psychologist named J. P. Guilford was one of the first researchers to conduct a study on creativity called the nine-dot puzzle. He challenged participants to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines without lifting their pencils from the page. Today many people are familiar with this puzzle and its solution.

If you’ve done the puzzle before then you might know the correct solution requires you to draw lines that extend beyond the area defined by the dots.

At the first stages, all the participants in Guilford’s study could be said to have censored their own thinking by limiting the possible solutions to those within the imaginary square (even those who eventually solved the puzzle). Even though participants weren’t prohibited from working an ‘unconventional’ solution, they were unable to ‘see’ the white space beyond the square’s boundaries. Only 20% managed to break out of the illusory confinement and continue their lines in the white space surrounding the dots.

The simplicity of the solution, and the fact that 80 percent of the participants were blinded by the perceived boundaries of the square led Guilford and his readers to leap to the sweeping conclusion that creativity requires you to go outside the box. The idea went viral.

What it’s become today


Instantly, the nine-dot puzzle and the phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ became metaphors for creativity and innovative problem solving skills. It spread like wildfire predominantly in the creative industry, management, and personal improvement programmes. Today, it’s become a blanket statement for any added value an applicant has to offer – the cherry on top of the basic requirements.

The problem with thinking outside the box


Asking someone to think out of the box with a new project idea is much like promoting a campaign against racism – it inevitably points out the existence of prevailing racism that needs to be addressed. Likewise, thinking outside the box demands that a ‘box’ still exists. This runs counter to what the catchphrase is trying to achieve.

In fact, a study (Burnham & Davis, 1969) even found that people don’t significantly do very well especially when instructed to think outside the box :

To test the validity and facts of the popular concept, researchers conducted a similar experiment to Guilford’s nine-dot puzzle with one major difference: the experimental group were told that the solution lied outside the box – that lines had to be drawn outside the imaginary box bordering the dot array. The results? Only a meagre 25% of participants solved the puzzle.

What this simply means is that even when given direct and explicit instructions to think outside of the box, people don’t significantly do much better than those who weren’t instructed to do so.

What leaders really want


Let’s be real. No matter what most leaders say, they aren’t really looking for out-of-the-box thinking. Bommarito (2016) argues that companies don’t exactly know what they’re asking for when demanding for people with this mindset:

…no matter what most people and companies say, they really don’t want out-of-the-box thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking is scary and different and risky and takes the kind of courage that says, “Screw the way everybody else does it. This new idea may blow up in our faces, but we’re going to introduce it anyway.” And second, because companies that are known for out-of-the-box thinking never have to ask their people to “think” that way. They already do so because they can’t imagine “thinking” any way else.

So what leaders want aren’t exactly people who think outside the box; what they really want are people who can innovate solutions and conjure original ideas within the company’s parameters, without challenging the status quo – the tried and true. The safe.

With that said, it’s due time to kick that restrictive advice out the door. Because in real life, you won’t find boxes, but numerous situations where true creative mindset is required for a breakthrough.

Truly, there shouldn’t even be a box – only infinite possibilities.


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Bommarito, G. (2018). It’s time to stop asking people to think outside the box.linkedin.com. Retrieved 7 March 2018, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/its-time-stop-asking-your-people-think-outside-box-guy-bommarito

Burnham, C. A., & Davis, K. G. (1969). The nine-dot problem: Beyond perceptual organization. Psychonomic Science17(6), 321-323.

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