Why suggesting to think outside the box hurts you
[This post is part of a series on creativity. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Thinking outside the box is to think differently, unconventionally or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking.
Who wouldn’t want that, at least when the situation calls for it? The question is how we achieve it, either in ourselves or in others, like in teams we’re leading.
The problem is that suggesting to someone to try to think outside the box doesn’t help them achieve outside-the-box results. Jacob described an experiment on just this matter, documented in Weisberg’s book.
The term “outside the box” comes from, or at least is related to, the nine dots problem, whose goal is to draw four connected lines that go through all nine dots,
and its solution, which requires drawing outside the box implied by the nine dots.
(Sorry if you just saw the problem for the first time and posting them so close just ruined it for you).
The experiment (I have to look it up, I’m describing it from memory from Jacob’s description in class) gave the puzzle to two groups. To one group they gave minimal instructions. To the other group they gave extra encouragement, in particular suggesting that they think outside the box. I forget the exact wording, but I remember it feeling overwhelmingly clear, as someone who knew the solution, that the extra instructions gave away the solution.
The results? The two groups solved the problem in equal amounts. In the quintessential problem requiring outside-the-box thinking, suggesting thinking outside the box didn’t help.
One side effect was that the group with the extra instruction felt worse at not having solved it despite the extra instruction. So suggesting to yourself or your team to think outside the box can be counterproductive.
The experimenters, as I remember, found ways that were productive to help people solve the problem without giving away the solution. I found these results heartening and empowering.
The ways they found to help people solve the problems were to give them simpler problems first that they could solve, increasing the difficulty as the subjects’ skills improved. They gave them experience, persistence, and domain knowledge.
Experience, persistence, and domain knowledge, as we’ll see in future posts, are about the most valuable and effective tools in getting solutions to problems. There’s a reason companies pay more for experienced people than inexperienced. They get results, especially in comparison to vague, romantic instructions like “think outside the box.” What’s better is that experience, persistence, and domain knowledge are accessible to all who want it, though they may take time.
What seems counter-intuitive for people who believe the mainstream myths on creativity is that solving problems based on experience, persistence, and domain knowledge — that is, known solutions — is inside-the-box thinking.
That effective solutions appear inside the box for people with experience, persistence, and domain knowledge is intuitive makes sense to people who understand creativity. When you have a problem you want it solved effectively. Effectiveness is what matters and that’s what experience brings. Whether something appears inside or outside the box describes not the solution, but someone’s perception of it.
To say a solution appears outside the box says that the person perceiving it that way lacks experience, persistence, and domain knowledge. Do you see the counterproductivity in having someone like that solving your problems? Do you see the productivity in having someone experienced in effectively solving problems just like yours solve your problems?
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