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Scott Berkun


Does ‘Think Outside the Box’ Help?

Popular creativity cliches explained

Published: Monday, October 30, 2017 - 12:02

While researching my new book, The Dance of the Possible (Berkun Media, 2017), I studied the history of some of the most misleading ideas that have been popularized about creative thinking. Like the myth of epiphany and the other creative myths of innovation, these sayings are misleading despite their popularity.

Think outside the box

The famous saying, “Think outside the box,” has the illusion of being helpful, but it’s mostly useless. The implication is that you should challenge assumptions and test constraints, but those who use this phrase are betraying their own advice. If they were helping to solve the problem at hand, they’d offer a specific idea, or solution, that qualified as “out of the box” thinking, rather than simply saying the phrase and demanding that someone else do it.

The phrase comes from the nine-dot puzzle that was used in a research study conducted by Joy Paul Guilford during the 1970s. The trick to the puzzle is to ignore a common, but unstated, constraint that puzzles like this usually have. The implication is that we invent false constraints all the time: This is the one nugget of usefulness in the whole puzzle story. Challenging constraints is one approach to problem solving.

However, it turns out that being told to think outside the box doesn’t actually help much. Recently, different researchers replicated the Guilford study, but gave one group the advice to, more or less, “Think outside the box.” The result? It didn’t significantly change the results. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Simply telling someone to do something hard doesn’t make it any easier. Our brains like to be efficient, and assuming rules and constraints is what our brains are largely designed to do. (Some optical illusions demonstrate this well).

More broadly, logic puzzles like the nine-dot example rarely teach us very much. They often depend on a single trick or hidden assumption, which is a poor representation of the skills of problem solving and idea generation required to develop ideas in the real world. It’s far more useful as a leader to demonstrate good thinking, or create a healthy environment where interesting ideas are explored, than to demand other people engage in something simply because you say a phrase or post a sign. 

Left brain/right brain

Dan Pink (unfortunately) popularized the left brain/right brain notion in his popular but problematic book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Books, 2006), despite the left/right brain notion being mostly a misunderstanding of science. It is true that we do have two hemispheres in our brains, but the way they interact is complex, and many areas on both sides contribute to what we describe as creativity.

The left/right brain concept goes back many years, but it was neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga’s research during the 1960s that demonstrated how there are different functional centers in the brain. He performed tests where one part of the brain, in a patient with a head injury, clearly didn’t understand or know what the other part of the brain was doing. But his conclusion was not one of dominance: “You can’t be right-brained any more than you can be right-lunged or right-kidneyed.”

People love easy, binary models for things and take pride in basing our primitive notions on the pretense of science. This is why people still say, “he’s left-brained” or “I’m a right-brained person” despite how misguided those labels are. The Myers-Briggs test has the similar problems of being popular for how it satisfies our emotional needs to identify ourselves, more than it has anything to do with science or how personalities actually work.

Of course, it is fair to label our personalities, because some people are more logical or free-spirited than others, but it’s a mistake to confuse this with anything structural about how our brains work. As Jeffrey Anderson, a brain researcher, said: “It is certainly the case that some people have more methodical, logical, cognitive styles, and others more uninhibited, spontaneous styles... this has nothing to do on any level with the different functions of the [brain’s] left and right hemisphere.”

Blue-sky (constraint-free) thinking

The phrase “blue-sky thinking,” most often used in product design and marketing, is a request to eliminate all constraints, and to work on a project free of any restrictions. The problem is that the benefits of working on a blue-sky project are often, but not always, more romance than reality. Constraints are very useful in finding new ideas. The request to “think blue sky” can often lead people into the trap of ignoring seemingly smaller, or simpler, ideas that, if explored, could lead to the best solutions.

It can certainly be fun to think about solving bigger or more open problems. Imagining what you’d do with a 500-percent larger budget or an extra month of scheduled time on a project might yield an insight that transfers back to the actual constraints. But the desire to work “blue sky” reflects a misunderstanding of how constraints often help, rather than hinder, the creative process.

A constraint, which can initially seem frustrating, is an important kind of information. It gives you something to start with, and work against, in generating and testing ideas (and some research supports this). For example, it’s much easier to write a poem that rhymes than to write one in free verse. The structure of a rhyme provides information to work with and a structure, or shape, to try putting ideas into. Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, famously wrote The Cat in The Hat (Random House, 1957) based on a constraint from the publisher to use fewer than 250 different words.

There are many kinds of constraints, and the way the constraint is defined can change how useful it is in solving a problem. Often defining the problem thoughtfully, and working to examine and study the nuances of its constraints, is where the really big insights are found. This is especially true when working on projects where you are designing something for other people.

Of course, having too many constraints, or ones that conflict with each other, can render a problem unsolvable. Sometimes people are asked to do first-rate work on a third-rate budget, and it’d be unfair to tell them that if they were creative enough, they could succeed.

What are some other popular, but misguided, bits of creative advice you’ve heard? Leave a comment and I’ll investigate (Thanks to the folks on Twitter who suggested some of the above.)


About The Author

Scott Berkun’s picture

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author of five books and a speaker known for his work on creativity, management, and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, and other media. His latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013) was named an Amazon.com best book of the year.




I have often come across the TRIZ method for creative problem solving.  I've done a little research and it looks promising - but also looks rather complicated at the same time.  Any experience with this methodology?