Sep 5, 2018 · 4 min read

Problem Solving Requires More Than Creativity And Slogans

Since the late nineteen-sixties, we’ve been told to “think outside the box.”

For a while, the idea behind the slogan became the Holy Grail of problem solving.

And the slogan “Think Outside The Box” became the go-to all-powerful motivator which would instantly turn on your creativity.

Well, guess what — it didn’t instantly turn on everyone’s creativity, no matter how many times we heard the slogan.

And it was confusing.

We were suddenly expected to throw out all the familiar methodology, and “be creative.”

The term is thought to have been spawned by management consultants in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a way to challenge their clients. During their workshop, the consultant would present their clients with a grid of nine evenly spaced dots and ask them to connect the dots using only four lines, and without raising their pencil from the paper.

It does require some lateral thinking. But, once you’ve seen the solution, it’s ridiculously obvious. One of those “OMG, of course!”

And, it requires you to think outside the visual limits set up in your mind by the square shape of the nine-dot grid.

That’s what the phrase “thinking outside the box” means. The puzzle only seems difficult as long as we only see and abide by the imaginary boundary around the edge of the dot array. As soon as we see beyond our assumptions, we can discover other possibilities.

The phrase is also used in teaching dance, to encourage the dancer to move creatively, beyond simple, geometric box steps and its basic variations, literally, to step outside the box into more complex patterns of expression.

“Thinking outside the box” became one of the buzz-words — a popular, corporate catch-phrase of its day, and still comes back to haunt us far beyond its popularity in the “corporate-speak” of its era.

But simply telling people to be creative is not the whole solution. Simply throwing creative thinking at a problem isn’t going to solve much unless we fully understand the problem, first.

We need balance. We need to understand the whole problem.

We need to understand what the box is — to know its parameters. How big it is, what it’s made of, how much it will hold, what its unique properties are, and where are its boundaries (the real ones, not just the perceived ones) before we can move beyond them.

Only once we have defined the problem, can we move towards any kind of a solution and move beyond the boundaries of the box.

“Think outside the box? Indeed. But to add balance to that, one should not in the process forget what the inside of the box looks like as well.” — Criss Jami

Quick — grab a pencil and a piece of paper. Now, as fast as you can, list ten ways to use a brick as something other than a brick. You have ten seconds — go!

What did you come up with besides the usual — book-end, doorstop, paperweight, sauerkraut press, wheel chock, displacement device in a toilet tank (so you can use less water per flush), meat tenderizer, murder weapon, shelf separator (to hold up the boards of a college bookshelf), trivet (hotpot), guided missile, B&E tool, etc.?

All these answers are creative applications of “thinking outside the box”. But it rather begs the question. Misses the point that the box, or brick in our case, is best used — is designed to be sued — as a building material.

But thinking out side the box isn’t wrong. It’s just not the whole picture.

As creatives, as writers, we’re constantly encouraged to bring our A-game. To cram on our “What-if?” and “Anything-goes” hats, and achieve something new, innovative, provocative, amazing.

And, God bless our little cotton socks, we often do just that.

But not without first climbing into the box to examine, deconstruct, rebuild, and fully understand what the current benchmark is — the one we’re attempting to surpass. It’s called doing our due diligence. Making sure we have covered all our bases before jumping off the cliff in our new lighter-than-air-thingy.

“The ordinary think inside of the box, the extraordinary think outside of the box, but genius thinks inside, outside, below and above the box.”
Matshona Dhliwayo

Boxes aren’t always problems waiting to be solved. Some boxes already fit very nicely, thank-you. And some contain treasures.

Looking inside the box is not only necessary, it can be incredibly rewarding. It can keep us from reinventing the wheel, or otherwise wasting a lot of valuable time and effort. And it could lead us to create something we might otherwise never have considered.

You just never know what gifts you’ll find inside the next box with which you’re presented.

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