Self Development
Thinking Out of the Box - Why and How

by Ashok Grover
What a box has to do with "out of the box" thinking? Why do you really need to go for such kind of thinking? ... and how to go about it. Answers to all these questions with some very simple tips.
How often have you heard about "thinking out of the box"? May be, very often. And how often have you wondered what a box has to do with this? Possibly, never!

Well, perhaps this term "out of the box" is derived from a famous puzzle created by the early 20th century British mathematician Henry Ernest Dudeney. You might have come across this one, in which you are asked to connect nine dots in a three-by-three grid by drawing four straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper. Here, what one needs to realize is that the boundaries of the dot array are psychological. The puzzle can be solved only by extending the lines beyond the artificial boundary created in our mind by the nine dots. This is what we call "out of the box" thinking.

Another term in this context is 'lateral thinking', which was coined by Edward de Bono. It referred to a problem-solving style that involves looking at the given situation from unexpected angles. Many a times, a problem seems insolvable just because our assumptions about it are wrong. Interestingly, Edward De Bono said "You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper." This means that trying harder in the same direction may not be as useful as changing direction. That is, further effort using the same approach will not necessarily succeed. Lateral Thinking is about changing perceptions and hence the course.

Here are a couple of examples of "in the box thinking". Lord Kelvin, President of Royal Society opined in 1895 that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." In 1899, Charles H. Duell, Director of the US Patent Office, recommended winding up of his office saying, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." While we do not know any aeroplane that is lighter than air, today - 110 years later - we also believe that many inventions are still to come. If everybody starts thinking the way these two gentlemen did, imagine how unprogressive the world would be.

Progress in any field requires thinking "out of the box", meaning thinking uniquely, thinking beyond the visible, beyond the obvious. In real life, sometimes it may be really puzzling since people are taught by their parents, their bosses to think the way they want them to think. Please remember that even highly creative people can turn their thinking "in-the-box" when they stop trying. Rejection, apathy or even indifference can turn an innovator into an in-the-box thinker.

For enhancing and honing your "thinking outside the box", here are some practical tips:
  • Be ever willing to take new perspectives to routine day-to-day work instead of taking them for granted. Normally that's what happens when we stop thinking about what is regular and obvious.
  • Focus on the value of finding new ideas and acting on them. New ideas may not stir any enthusiasm in you unless you look at them from the angle of value addition, especially if your current systems are working fine.
  • Give free hand to your right brain often. Let new ideas flow, howsoever stupid they may seem to be. You will have enough time later to sift through them and see whether they are practical or make sense.
  • Listen to others, be open and receptive. Support and respect their ideas. It not only gives you new ideas; but can always bring suggestions to enhance your ideas further.
  • Be passionate enough to pursue tasks to conclusion instead of making half-hearted attempts. Many new ideas may get killed early on; the biggest loss of time and effort would be to drop them at a stage when they have developed to the 80-90 percent level.
On applying these tips, you will gradually find that thinking out of the box will become second nature to you. Not only will you find it mentally stimulating but this would also serve to boost your confidence.
Ashok Grover, Founder CEO of Ashok Grover Consulting is an expert in people assessment and focused executive / leadership coaching. He is also Director at Skillscape, a company with a vision of Value Creation by enhancing people and organizational competencies.

His last assignment was with the JBM Group as Corporate Chief Human Resource Officer. He has four decades of experience in operations, materials, information technology and people development with Parle Group, Mohan Meakins Group, Hawkins Cookers Limited and JBM Group.