Thinking Inside the Box before Venturing Outside It
During a workshop, four teams of software engineers were engaged in solving a problem with a tight deadline. One team solved it with minutes to spare. Members of the second team thought they solved it, but just as the allotted time was up, they realized their solution wouldn’t work. The other two teams failed to solve the problem. As all four teams struggled to solve the problem, two or three people shouted, “We need to think outside the box!”
Immediately afterward, the facilitator asked the four teams to spend six minutes identifying what they might have done differently to solve the problem or to solve it more effectively. Their resulting lists included varied ideas:
- Spend a few minutes discussing the problem before jumping in to tackle it
- Take a break from problem-solving to reflect on how we’re doing and make adjustments if needed
- Think about how this problem is similar to problems we’ve previously solved
- Make sure we really understand the problem
- Review the criteria for success to be sure we’re striving for the right goal
- Identify our individual strengths that might contribute to solving the problem
- Ask questions to clarify aspects of the problem that confuse us
- Make sure we’ve really solved the problem before patting ourselves on the back
- Observe the other teams so as to learn from their successes and avoid their setbacks
All these ideas were well within the box, yet they were things that several teams overlooked. In fact, they’re things that teams often overlook in their rush to solve problems, yet within six minutes, these four teams realized these were things they already knew.
When you’ve truly exhausted inside-the-box ideas and outside-the-box thinking seems appropriate, there are ways to approach it to make it more effective. For example, change your space so that you’re not constrained by your familiar surroundings or your normal routine. Focus your thinking by asking specific questions, such as “What do we already know about solving this problem from our past experience?” Consider all possibilities; don’t arbitrary dismiss any as “Well, that won’t work.” And avoid negative self-talk; don’t let your inner critic hobble your ability to think of possible solutions.
Opinions vary as to whether thinking outside the box is related to creativity. There’s no doubt it can generate original, innovative solutions, but the challenge, as these four teams concluded, is to start by examining the possibilities readily available inside the box.