When Thinking Out Of The Box,
You Might Just Want To Think In The Box

From the ideas from strange places department:

This past weekend we changed spaces at the Bloomington branch and it got me to thinking about the rather old saw, ‘thinking outside the box.’

Thinking outside the box is not something that works well when you are trying to move. Turns out knickknacks and computer cables travel better constrained in cardboard.

The concept of ‘thinking outside the box’ is often illustrated using an example where you have to connect nine dots using only straight lines:

‘Thinking outside the box’ has gone from sage advice to cliché to weapon and here is where it runs headlong into the Uncertainty Paradox.

If all things are uncertain, can you really get anywhere without a box?

First let’s deal with the pesky nine dots. This is actually a test of ‘assumed rules.’ Self limitation based on rules that do not exist can limit your response to a problem. It has an innate ability to make the participant feel foolish since the answer is rather simple when you ignore the implied boundaries rule. (Lesson absorbed, don’t assume, thank you very much, may we drink now?) However, there are still rules that are implied and enforced. Paper, pencil, the current time-space continuum.

For example, here’s my solution using n-space geometry, entanglement and a sonic screwdriver:

Less obvious. Blurs the lesson. May create a black hole. (Disclosure: The above solution is designed as an attempt at humor although may be scientifically possible using string theory. Everything else seems to be. Also, who knew you could buy a Dr. Who Sonic Screwdriver? I guess I should have known, but really, this could be big.)

The simplicity of the example leads to confusion in how the term ‘thinking outside the box’ is used.

The unfortunate take away: I SHOULD NOT BE BOUND BY RULES

For example, when an inventory controller mentions that the warehouse cannot deal with live ponies the agitated leader screams, “Think Outside The Box!”

The true lesson: YOU NEED TO KNOW THE RULES, (even if you plan to break them).


I have found creativity to be at its most powerful when there is an obstacle present. Something to overcome. A boundary to cross.

That’s why artists are often at the cutting edge of technology and social mores. Limitations to visions must be overcome. Whether a caveman trying to capture life on a wall or director trying to depict dinosaurs on a screen, the desire to create overcomes barriers. (The division between painter, inventor, chemist and so on is rather recent. Often painters were at the vanguard of chemical compound development that would last longer, shine brighter, work better. There’s been a similar path in the push for better digital tools. “Make it do this,” is powerful mojo to an inventor.)

Too often the mantra “think outside the box” is behind a leaderless charge. When times are uncertain it feels safer and easier to take a scattershot approach rather than a focused, long term, strategic approach. Strategy requires decision. Strategy requires picking sides. Strategy can be very uncomfortable. A leader calling for ‘out of the box thinking’ very often sounds like the captain of a ship asking the crew to pick a direction. If you command the rudder, you better have some idea of where you are going.

How does this effect behavior?

  • Unlimited Choice vs A Choice Few. Ever sit down with the remote and start flipping on a system with 200 or 300 channels? I find the time wasted searching makes me feel what I settle on has less value (There is so much trash on TV, how could this be different?). Compare that to deciding at the beginning of the week on a show you want to catch, programing the DVR or scheduling an evening around the event… Seems more special and you’re less likely to forget the popcorn. There is a limit to how many ideas management can manage.
  • Unlimited Time vs Time Constraints. Hallmark was an interesting place. Seasonal product always shipped within a very narrow window of time. (Kind of has to, not like Valentines Day is going to wait now is it.) Everyday product (things for birthdays or thank yous) tended to slip because the deadlines felt made-up. This created some interesting differences in decision making and also tended to put seasonal items at the forefront of shortening lead times and development cycles. If one must finish, one will manage the trade-offs necessary to meet a schedule.
  • Unlimited Customization vs Clear Upgrade. I picked up a really cool stereo microphone that can hook directly through USB as well as a whole host of other features. The instruction book is 60 pages long give or take. Took me an hour to figure out how to hook it up to my computer. I feel like my dad did when the VCR light kept blinking 12:00. So much nicer to start with something simple that works and then move forward when I’m ready. Limiting the user experience can improve the user experience.

Janice Cartier, a wonderful creative spirit and New Orleans expat, got me thinking down these lines with a post on her Ziploc studio. A concept where she picks a few artsy tools that fit into a Ziploc bag and heads off to create. Limiting concerns about what to work with leads to limitless creations with the materials at hand.

Innovation in a company can be driven that way as well.

So how can Cardboard Creativity help navigate the Uncertainty Paradox?

Creating boundaries and limits is not the same thing as limited thinking. By establishing the constraints within which you will be working you help direct results towards implementable rather than the blue sky. I think this may be one critical reason why so many big business ideas come out of garages, shacks and dorm rooms. The constraints are obvious and looming, the desire to overcome immediate and pressing. Cardboard Creativity is all about ‘making do, while making great.’ Overcoming limitations and breaking down template thinking by focusing on the core of an idea rather than the fuzzy periphery.

So box your innovative initiatives. Cardboard is great to get things moving, but if you need to break out a wall it is only cardboard afterall.

What factors should you use to box in creativity? The goal is to design limitations that actually enhance your chances of creative success, focusing your innovation on critical boundaries. I like the following construct.

  1. Customer Comprehension – How far down the path of customer comprehension are we prepared to go? Should we pull in small steps or giant leaps? What kind of beta cycle can we use? Will a customer accept this kind of product from us? The harder an innovation is to understand, the harder it will be to accept.
  2. People and Tech – Who do we have who can do this? What are they not doing if they do? Do we have any experience in this technology? If you don’t control technology or people that can make something happen, it may be that you’ve come up with a great idea for some other company.
  3. Time and Money – Deadlines, Budgets, Pricing Model, Kill Dates. The farther away in time and money a project is from real world customer use the more likely it will swerve off the tracks. Is this idea really within your company’s resource capability? What trade offs are there in strategy, time and costs. (Nobody could make an electric car until Tesla decided to make a really expensive electric car. Turns out it wasn’t the technology constraint, it was the pricing constraint. These have to balance out in a way that leads to a decent size market of course). Resources have to be allocated.
  4. Sustainability – Does this move us in a strategically sound direction? Must this fit an existing distribution scheme or is it new. What are the limits to SKU, salesperson time, channel attention? Can we manage this through long term development schemes or is it a fad product? Where will this lead to conflict with competitors, when and how? How does this fit long term competitive advantage? All innovation is long haul, if there is no commitment it is a waist of time.
  5. Integrative Pull – What builds demand for the idea: Integration into existing processes? Connection to cloud computing platforms? Fuel pricing? Political trade winds? Whims of teenage girls and boys? What framework needs to exist for the product to succeed? An innovation that fits into a usage stream smoothly has built in demand pull.

The point is, sooner or later in in every innovation cycle you need to make decisions and limit activity to a focused strategic direction. The more uncertain predictions of the future appear the more necessary it is for leaders to decide what they want the future to be.

You may have noticed my innovation box has just five walls. Best to leave the top off, see what’s inside and, on occasion, leave room for some real out of the box thinking.

The Uncertainty Paradox Three business bloggers search for leadership, strategy and customer relationship insights and certainties in a world full of escalating uncertainties.

Join the continuing conversation at each of our blogs as we explore the implications of the uncertainty paradox.

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19 Responses to When Thinking Out Of The Box,
You Might Just Want To Think In The Box

  1. Fred,
    First I have to thank you for the reference here. I appreciate that very much. Nice to know that some things we do or say have an impact especially when they are right at the core of problem solving. i’d like to add one of those Dr. Who screwdrivers to the ziploc studio though, might come in handy.
    I love the concept, “Cardboard Creativity”. Surely everyone has played “fort” with the old appliance box tossed when the new arrival has been installed in pride of place. We who know though could always see the best part of the delivery was the space ship, or sai boat, or fort or castle the box became… it seems to me…that if you tossed a few of those boxes into a conference room every now and then…..well, I am just saying…maybe, just maybe…we might get some innovative thinking going on… provided we had some cutters, a crayon or two….maybe some tape.
    Just saying. 🙂
    As simplistic as that sounds, I might add that one of my engineering friends always travels on site with a number two pencil and a pad of paper and a hard hat. If he can’t come up with a solution that is accessible and explainable on site with that,he figures he wasted a lot of time at Georgia Tech.
    So limiting is sometimes so not less, it is almost the opposite. The “what if’s” seem to pop up rather nicely…
    Really terrific thoughts you have here.
    .-= Janice Cartier´s last blog ..1.34 Billion In Gifts To An Artist =-.

  2. kay plantes says:

    Fred, there are so many terrific thoughts in this blog post, it could have been multiple posts. I have worked with artists, architects, engineers, and a host of other professionals in my strategy work and to a one they comment on the gift of constraints as constraints force creativity. At the same time, the art of thinking strategically — setting direction when the rudder is in your hand — is to tear down the walls so that new connections and possibilities emerge. But how far afield do you look, as you state? I think your 5 sides are a great list. I would add the following perspective about whether to look outside the box in the first place: companies rarely succeed in moves from their core business if the core business is weak. The high financial returns to adjacency moves (e.g., a new category, a new market, a new technology for your market) come to those in leadership positions to start with in their core business. So if you are a laggard, figure out how to NARROW your business in an area where you can lead and then, once building the solid base, expand into adjacent spaces to grow.

    Have a great day.

    .-= kay plantes´s last blog ..Use Real Problems to Drive Business Model Innovations =-.

  3. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, Kay is so right about your post containing many terrific thoughts. One thing occurs to me as I read: those garage innovators have nothing to lose. Big companies perceive so many downsides to innovation. Would you risk losing one customer to step outside your predictable corporate behavior? Would you risk 10? 100? 1000? Some leaders think one is too many. But, if you have no customers to begin with … you’re in Cardboard Box Creativity City.

    By the way, technically speaking, shipping boxes such as the one in your graphic are made from corrugated, not cardboard. Cardboard is the material on the back of a scratch pad. Because of my many years in packaging I tend to think about the box. 🙂
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..How Often Should You Publish on Your Business Blog? =-.

  4. Hi Janice, I love how your engineer friend thinks. Tools get in the way of inventive answers all the time.

    I wonder when our imagination switches from forts and castles at the sight of a giant box to ‘recycling problem.’ Or what causes it. I’ve been fascinated by a TED talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on how education can kill creativity. It’s kind of inspiring and depressing at the same time. Thanks for the comment. I’ve been ruminating on your Ziploc studio for a while and am glad you were OK with its use here.

  5. Great points Kay, I think the issue of distraction from core purpose is a huge one. At times it almost feels as if management becomes bored with the same-old-same-old and so start scanning far afield, with the only real strategic connection being cash on hand. Adjacency moves are a fabulous play and it surprises me how often they are overlooked.

    The strategic question of how far afield to look when adding categories is critical. But the allure of sexy bold moves can sometimes outweigh highly profitable, yet boring, improvements in core lines as you say. I wonder what kind of planning construct could be developed beyond the old, but useful, ‘stars to dogs’ portfolio process to encourage continuous innovation within category balanced against radical strategic shifts out of category.

  6. Hi Brad, I agree – or at the very least the upside radically outweighs the downside. The downside for large companies can also be seen in their stock price. Short term losses for longer term gains are often frowned upon by Wall Street.

    And couldn’t it be ‘corrugated cardboard’ please, I hope? Ah well, put it down to creative license. 🙂

  7. Fred ,
    I’ve seen that Ted presentation as a matter of fact. But I am kind of laughing at the coincidence here, before the storm one of my revenue streams was designing creative art enrichment programs and artist in resident special projects at a girls’ school in the Garden District of New Orleans. I spent a lot of time RE- introducing the girls to their own creative minds across disciplines. Integrating the arts into the academics. And since we were involved in a Literacy Program with a lower income school nearby, we spent time RE-accessing those co-ed students’ inner creative child as well. Fairly hard work, highly creative and cardboard (corrugated or no) was essential.
    Small soap box moment: arts are problem solving, critical thinking and application, we address things from all sides, kinetic, visual, and aural …cut those out and you reduce the arrows in every child’s quiver for approaching challenges resourcefully. Why we would want to deny our children full access to themselves at their best I have no idea. Penny wise and pound foolish IMHO.
    ( soap box scooched back in closet now. )
    I love this post and you are more than welcome for my small contribution. My pleasure actually. Glad it got you thinking. 🙂
    .-= Janice Cartier´s last blog ..1.34 Billion In Gifts To An Artist =-.

  8. Karen Swim says:

    Fred, excellent deep dive into this concept of creativity. Those who lived through the Great Depression know very well that scarcity breeds innovation. I applaud you for turning commonly accepted wisdom on its head and proving the fallacy of out of the box thinking. Certainly there is a place for brainstorming, free flow thought but when it comes time to build you need to know if you’re constructing a circle, box or diamond!
    .-= Karen Swim´s last blog ..How Bulletproof is Your Reputation? =-.

  9. Bill Welter says:

    Stunning interestng post.
    I’ve also had some success with getting people to think in other boxes when they don;t want to think outside of their own box (which is darn hard).
    Cardboard creativity is a great metaphor for what we should be doing more of.

  10. J.D. Meier says:

    I agree – boxing is the secret of results. In security, it’s comparmentalizing problems. In information, it’s creating a closed system to predict, test, and learn. In life, it’s boxes of time to drive choices, or boxes of space, for saftey, comfort or focus.

    Beautiful points with precision ….
    – you need to know the rules
    – creativity to be at its most powerful when there is an obstacle present.
    – Strategy requires picking sides.
    – Unlimited Choice vs A Choice Few.
    – Unlimited Time vs Time Constraints.
    – Unlimited Customization vs Clear Upgrade.

    > Creating boundaries and limits is not the same thing as limited thinking.
    Rings true.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..6 Personality and Work Environment Types =-.

  11. Very cool. I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about this ‘flaw’ in education. I’m thinking that understanding how that spark gets driven out will give clues on how to free up thinking as adults. I think it could be interesting to hear how you were able to break through with the kids and what kind of resistance you ran into as you took them away from their comfort zones. I like to believe that the burying creative impulses is more of a subconscious thing that happens in response to time pressure and feelings of security, but maybe it’s more overt than that. Is a class full of creative spirits more difficult to manage than a class of drones? I don’t know. So many of histories geniuses were misfits in some way I’ve got to think we’re missing something.

  12. Thank you Karen. I’m going to look more closely at research around the Great Depression. I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of creative sparks during recent economic upheavals and so I know it happened, it would be nice to get a feel for how influential it was for prosperity in the 50s.

  13. Hi Bill, Finding another box is actually an interesting way to think about what is going on. Something to explore!

  14. Thank you J.D., The ability to create a closed, or at least manageable system for testing seems really important to me. I like seeing the tires being kicked on new ideas as quickly as possible for that learning to occur.

  15. LaVonn says:

    I really do enjoy your perspective. Working in a university setting I like to forward your blog to faculty for a new twist on things. I am still waiting on the book….

  16. This is a huge post! The one that stood out was the one about “knowing the rules first before you can break them”.

    It is the new game that you wanna play after knowing the rules and then playing around with them.

    Great stuff here Fred!
    .-= Daniel Richard´s last blog ..NEVER Doubt Yourself! =-.

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