Lesson from a Toothpick

Team-building to think outside the box

The Backstory

There are a number of ways and methods to “think outside the box;” however, a simple approach is often the most effective.

That’s what I experienced when trying to integrate a thought-provoking exercise with my team a few years ago. It was a simple activity at first glance, but as usual, critical thinking turned into over-analyzing and reviewing constraints… whether logical or illogical.

The idea is to look for solutions in areas that don’t seem reasonable at first; it’s easy to get caught up with limitations that exist in our own minds.

The Object

An issue with the particular “out of the box” thinking exercise I introduced was the ability (or lack thereof) to get passed the idea that… all lines are the same length and don’t change length when you move them.

Sounds simple enough, but I needed to illustrate this concept… enter, the toothpick.

Toothpicks from the same box are all the same length.

And no matter how you move them around, they don’t change. So, it made them perfect for the following activity to help people get passed this initial mental block, which I guess is step one of this exercise!

Creative Thinking Activity

This is an activity that has the following goal:

Make 4 closed boxes from a layout of 5 closed boxes

The rules are simple:

  • Use only existing pieces or sides
  • Each box must be closed, i.e. no open boxes or 3-sided boxes
  • All sides of each box are the same length and stay the same length
  • Using the following 5-box layout, move pieces to make 4 closed boxes
Start here. The initial layout.

The toothpicks create the visual of 5 boxes, so now, you must figure out how to create 4 closed boxes using what you see.

Okay… so I’m going to zip ahead to the and answer…

Spoiler warning if you’re going to keep reading…

Okay… here we go… the answer…

The first step is to move the first piece. Notice the top of the box in the first row… represented by the yellow toothpick.

Slide it to the right in the open space.

The answer, step one.

Typically, once someone sees this move, the light bulb goes off… Oh! I can create a new box in an area that is blank.

So, now it’s a matter of closing the new box that is being created.

Taking the bottom side of the middle box from the second row, represented by the green toothpick, move it up, and close the newly created box.

The answer, step two.

So, here we have it… 4 closed boxes made from 5 closed boxes… by moving two pieces.

The Lesson

If you do enough of these types of brain teasers and thinking exercises, your brain will slowly be trained to look for answers in spaces where you wouldn’t think an answer would be. That’s the point.

Too often, our eyes see a barrier, and our brains force us to work within known limitations. But, what if what we need isn’t within the boundaries? What if we need to be creative to solve a problem?

Train your team to think outside the box

Having a team with the ability and attributes to think creatively and problem solve leads to enhanced innovation and next-gen user experiences. When multiple people come together with this mindset, the possibilities exponentially increase, but you must practice, in order to train the ability.

The Take-aways

  • Practice looking for answers outside of normal constraints
  • Creative thinking leads to creative innovation
  • Avoid getting stuck within boundaries that only exist in your mind
  • Do out-of-the-box thinking exercises as a group for creative team-building

In many cases, the simpler the exercise the better, because our minds seems to put more limits in place with them! All you need is patience and the drive to not give up too soon.

Written by Shaun Holloway.