How to Think Outside the Box

People are often asked to think outside of the box but actually doing it is not so simple. Thinking outside of the box is lateral thinking. It involves approaching a problem from a totally different angle and finding a solution on a whole new pathway rather than relying on conventional, linear thinking.

The first step in lateral thinking is surprisingly simple: believe that you have the ability to think outside of the box. We tell ourselves many things that prevent us from even trying: “But I am not the expert of this!”, “I won’t be able to come up with anything!”, “My ideas will not be accepted!” and so on.

There are also times when we are simply too comfortable with existing ways of doing things. The good news is that creativity is not an innate trait; it is a skill that can be cultivated and developed. Here are some of the techniques proven to help train yourself to be creative and think outside the box:

Visualize it
Think visually by picturing the problem in your mind. Visual thinking removes the boundaries linear thinking can impose and helps you see the underlying problem. Not sure how to get started? Use visual thinking tools, such as mind mapping, to help you brainstorm and present ideas graphically.

Change or even break the rules
Don’t let existing rules or conventions get in your way. “That’s just the way we do it” is not a good enough reason to keep doing something that could be improved. Ask these three questions that help you examine the rules and think differently: Why do the rules exist? What would happen if the rules were broken? Would those results hurt or benefit us?

Examine the constraints. Rules often can be changed by relaxing the constraints. Why did all video rentals place a restriction on rental days and have late fees? Because there were limited copies of videos that the rental company could offer to rent. When Netflix entered the video rental market, they changed the rules and set up a subscription base, which allowed its clients to watch two movies per month, with no late fees. Netflix broke the industry’s biggest rule and thrived!

Challenge your assumptions
Assumptions are just beliefs that we accept without proof or facts, but it can be hard to realize that is what they are. Consider the Pike Syndrome. The pike, a carnivorous fish, cannot be placed in the same aquarium with smaller fish, as it preys upon them. To solve this problem, the aquarium operator would first place a glass barrier between the pike and the smaller fish. When the pike goes after the smaller fish but crashes into the wall and feels pain, it stops trying. When the glass barrier is removed, the pike will not eat the smaller fish, as it remembers that the only reward is pain and failure. Any of us can be suffering from Pike Syndrome if we don’t find do the hard work of identifying our assumptions and challenging them.

Create a metaphor
Metaphors make a comparison between two things that aren’t similar but do share something in common. You can use them to draw links between your problem and unrelated ideas, problems, or things. This can help you approach your problem from a new angle as new insights often occur when similarities between two disparate problems are identified.

Be playful
Bring a spirit of intellectual playfulness and sense of humour to your problem solving. Not only will it help you to relax, but it can also stimulate creative thinking. Most alarm clocks are turned off by pressing a button, but many people found that wasn’t enough to get them truly awake in the morning. A playful mind invented the flying alarm clock which launches into the air when the alarm sounds, requiring the sleeper to get out of bed and catch it to turn it off.

Embrace failure
The fear of failure is often a major obstacle to creativity and problem solving. Failure should be expected and accepted. Embracing failure is an attitude that a creative mind needs to have. Just take the words of Thomas Edison into consideration: “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Failure is not final, unless you let it be.

The ability to think outside the box isn’t an inborn trait, it’s a skill you can practice. The more you exercise you mind, the better you will be at it!