It was the end of 2002. The Y2K bug has just fizzled out and the Indian IT companies were looking for the next big buzzword to revive growth. I was working with one such IT company somewhere in India as a project leader. Life was quiet and uneventful.

It was during that time I first heard about “Innovation”. Well, not that I heard the word for the first time, but the fact that we needed to have it in the workplace as soon as possible. We were told that the way we did work was foolish and the sooner we could be innovative, the better. We were told to eat innovation, sleep innovation, breathe innovation. HR started sending mailers 3 times a day with quotes about innovation. “Innovative thinking” seminars started taking place every week. The more fortunate ones were sent to expensive conferences in plush hotels to learn about innovation.

To add to our anxiety, “Innovation” did not come alone; It brought with it another trusted friend, “Out of the box” thinking. Now you see, I belonged to the generation of students who memorized textbooks and poured them out on exam papers. So, evidently, thinking out of the box was not only unfamiliar territory for me, it was also extremely scary.

Now when I look back, I think it was not only me, but the entire organization was uncertain about how to tackle this “Out of the box thinking” beast. I remember once an innovation contest was organized, and we were asked to provide completely “Out of the box” ideas and solutions regarding how to increase productivity at work. A panel was set up to evaluate all submissions and decide on winners. I heard from a panel member that solutions ranged from “have better food served at the canteen to keep employees happy” to “arrange door-to-door transportation to avoid waiting in the traffic”. The panel submitted its evaluation to senior management, who, upon reviewing that, came back with a different message… think “out-of-the-box-but-inside-the-scope-of-our-work”!!

That brings me to the second part of this blog. Is “Out of the box thinking” a necessary, even relevant concept for innovation? To answer this, let’s first try to answer what “out of the box thinking” even means. To me, it means taking a problem outside the realm of its existence and trying to find a solution or a situation where it ceases to be a problem. For example, when someone is trying to lose weight by exercising and controlling food intake, you propose a solution like “Let’s all go to the moon and weigh ourselves there”. Or, when someone asks you the fastest route from Delhi to Mumbai by car, you propose a solution like “drive to the airport and take a flight”.

While it may be a wonderful idea for some, for me it sounds overwhelming. The moment you erase the boundaries around a problem, the choices are limitless. And that’s scary! Innumerable human behavioral analyses have shown that the human mind thinks/chooses better when options are fewer. Chances of making an error increase with the number of choices. As Barry Schwartz pointed out in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More”, having an abundance of options requires a lot of effort to make a choice and can leave us feeling dissatisfied with our own choice. In the context of innovation, it will lead to a creative block. Not being able to think through all possible choices will lead to frustration and a mental shut-down.

So, what’s the alternative? I’d say “Start within the box and try to push the boundaries wherever possible” would be a better approach to creating products, solutions, and services that are distinctively different from what already exists. After all, that’s what innovation is all about, isn’t it?

Let’s take an example of a project your organization has undertaken. In this case, the boundaries, or the so-called “box” may be the budget, the timeline, and the technology choice. While starting within these boundaries, a good question to ask is “What technology choice would we have made if budget or timeline was not a concern?” If that choice seems to be a more effective/improved one, try to see how far the budget or timeline can be stretched to accommodate the better choice.

I’ll end this post with an interesting fact about the famous “nine-dot puzzle”, which is the origin of the phrase “Out of box thinking”. In this puzzle, you have to connect 9 dots using 4 straight lines, without lifting your pencil from the paper.

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* Source: Google Image

While most people will try solving it by imagining all 9 dots are within a square (when, in reality, they are not), the actual solution lies in breaking the imaginary square and extending the lines beyond. Therefore, people who can solve this puzzle are thought to have the ability to go “outside the box” and think creatively.

However, and this is where it gets interesting, there’s a contrarian viewpoint that says the second category of people (who could solve the puzzle) are also remaining within the box, i.e., the surface of the 2-dimensional paper. Maybe they are pushing the boundaries a bit, but not necessarily going beyond conventional thinking.

So, what, according to this contrarian view, would truly be an “outside of the box” solution? Some examples are given below (Source: https://www.prescouter.com/):

  • What if the pencil draws a thick line instead of a thin one?
  • What if the dots are not on a flat surface?
  • What if we try to solve the problem in a non-Euclidean space? In non-Euclidean space, the following line will be considered straight:

All these 3 solutions exhibit “boxless thinking” as they shatter one of the implicit assumptions of the problem (the tendency to see the pattern as a square). However, this kind of strongly divergent thinking will mostly not be applicable in a practical situation (design thinking may be an exception though).

If you, like me, are constantly trying to find ways to think outside of the box, my suggestion is…don’t. Just remember, boundaries are powerful and can help take your creativity to the next level. Boundaries reduce choice by providing a clear realm within which you can start brainstorming. Boundaries help focus your creative attention toward viable solutions and ideas that can make a difference.

So, in my opinion, “inside the box” is a better place to start than outside of it.