Thinking outside the box is more than just a business cliché. It means approaching problems in novel, innovative ways. It implies an ability to conceptualize problems differently, and demands an understanding of your position in relation to any particular situation in ways you’d never thought of before. Ironically, its a cliché that means to think of clichéd situations in ways that aren’t, well, clichéd.
Here are just a few habits that lessen your ability to think out-of-the-box:
- Negative attitude.
- Fear of failure or criticism, perfectionism.
- Workplace stress, or unhealthy stress in general.
- Rigidly following rules, wedded to black and white thinking (not flexible, unable to perceive the value of gray areas).
- Making false assumptions – about others, about the world, about the situation, about the expectations you feel weighing on you, about your own talents and abilities.
- Over-reliance on logic, along with assuming you have an accurate grasp of what is logical.
As you can see from our brief list of out-of-the-box thinking busters, our focus is on how you can think outside the proverbial box. What follows are just a few ways you can increase your outside-the-box thinking muscle.
- Question everything: “Expert opinion,” says Kuhn, “fouls up the creative engine” (Kuhn, R., “What makes creative personality in business,” in R. Kuhn (ed), Handbook for Creative and Innovative Managers, McGraw Hill, New York, 1988).
Familiarity and routineness lead many people into frozen evaluations, straight-jacketed concepts, and boxed-in assumptions. Science is discovering that when you are curious about things, you trigger a cascade of reactions that light up the brain, while an incurious brain begins losing its effectiveness (Chopra, D. and R. Tanzi, Super Brain, Random House, NY, 2012).
- Release the past: There is an almost instinctive tendency of people and organizations to protect their past successes and rest on past laurels rather than separate themselves from convention or fading technologies. Peter Drucker refers to it as ‘succumbing to the temptation to feed yesterday and starve tomorrow’ (Drucker, Peter, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Harper and Row, New York, 1985).
- Listen to the voice of eccentricity within: It has been argued by transpersonal psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists that there is an innate idiosyncratic knowing in all of us that defines our originality and imagination. So, heeding that idiosyncratic voice is a necessary aspect of our unfoldment, and certainly of our creativity.
The neurobiology of creativity has been addressed in the article “Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms.” The authors write that “creative innovation might require coactivation and communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily are not strongly connected.” Highly creative people who excel at creative innovation have an idiosyncratic knowing that defines their ‘creative voice.’ They tend to differ from others in three ways:
- they have a high level of specialized knowledge,
- they are capable of divergent thinking mediated by the frontal lobe,
- and they are able to modulate neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine in their frontal lobe.
Thus, the frontal lobe appears to be the part of the cortex that is most important for creativity (Kenneth M Heilman, MD, Stephen E. Nadeau, MD, and David Q. Beversdorf, MD. “Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms” Neurocase (2003).
- Know what to overlook: Knowing what to overlook and focusing on the essence of the problem or task at hand are the driving forces that sustain our creative fires. Knowing what you are looking for helps you separate the vital few pieces of information from the trivial many as you search for new insights.
- Travel off beaten paths: Travelling off beaten paths frees up the imagination and helps you gain perspectives that you wouldn’t otherwise have if you “walled” yourself up in routineness.
Incubation may aid creative problem-solving, and notes how some empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that incubation aids creative problem-solving in that it enables “forgetting” of misleading clues. Absence of incubation may lead the problem solver to become fixated on inappropriate strategies of solving the problem (Ward, T.B. (1995). What’s old about new ideas. In S. M. Smith, T. B. Ward and R. A. and Finke (Eds.) The creative cognition approach, 157–178, London: MIT Press).
- Recognize patterns, tendencies, and trends: We are living in an age of discontinuities. Of cognitive dissonance. Of increasing ambiguity. Of unknown future events. Seeing relationships and inter-relationships between seemingly disparate things allows us to see order within chaos, rightness in absurdity, truth within ambiguity.
According to Kenneth Heilman, a neurologist at the University of Florida and the author of Creativity and the Brain (2005), creativity not only involves coming up with something new, but also with shutting down the brain’s habitual response, or letting go of conventional solutions. There may be, for example, a dampening of norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter that sets off the fight-or-flight alarm. That’s why creative connections often occur when people are peaceful and relaxed (Heilman, K., Matter of Mind: A Neurologist’s View of Brain-behavior Relationships, 2007).
- Know when to say when: There are limits to everything. Some limits are real, others are assumed. In everything we do there seems to be a place at which doing, making, having, and avoiding stops. Pushing the envelope must be mediated by common sense and sound judgment. Seeing limits as merely suggestions, as springboards, is one of the keys to unlimited creativity.
By encouraging creativity we are encouraging a departure from society’s existing norms, values, and perception of limits. Expectation of conformity runs contrary to the spirit of creativity. Ken Robinson argues that the current education system is “educating people out of their creativity” (Why schools kill creativity—The case for an education system that nurtures creativity: Ken Robinson’s TED Conference talk, Monterey, California, 2006).
- Develop a bias for creative loafing: Ideation must have work and play in order to court the Muse. Leisure time can be leverage time! The cycle of initial awareness, followed by an intense and prolonged courtship interrupted by a planned period of disinterest (creative loafing), electrifies the Muse. Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation — people who are turned on by their work often work creatively — is especially critical. people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that Teresa Amabile and her research team studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover — when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well. Time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period (creative loafing); people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.
In fact, it’s not so much the deadline that’s the problem; it’s the distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative breakthrough. People can certainly be creative when they’re under the gun, but only when they’re able to focus on the work. They must be protected from distractions, and they must know that the work is important and that everyone is committed to it (Amabile, Teresa, HBS’s Teresa Amabile ‘tracks creativity in the wild’, article by Beth Potier, Harvard Gazette, February 10, 2005).
- Welcome spontaneity and chance encounters: The literature on out-of-the-box thinking is filled with unplanned events that lead people to worthwhile discoveries and phenomenal innovative ideas. Many breakthrough moments are the result of chance encounters that integrate experience meeting opportunity.
- Ask what assumptions you are making: Because we are literally bombarded with sensory stimuli, we have to select out what we chose to pay attention to. And we make assumptions about everything based on those perceptual filters. So, our assumptive nature determines how we respond to our environment unless we actively and consciously question those assumptions. We can take the assumptive handcuffs off and clear our perceptual channels through the intentional monitoring of our thought processes.
Learning to solve problems that do not have well defined answers is another way to foster your creativity. This is accomplished by exploring problems, examining assumptions, and redefining options, possibly drawing on knowledge that at first may seem unrelated to the problem in order to solve it (Paris, C., Edwards, N., Sheffield, E., Mutinsky, M., Olexa, T., Reilly, S., and Baer, J. (2006). How early school experiences impact creativity. In J. C. Kaufman and J. Baer (Eds.), Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development (pp. 333-350). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press).
- Recognize that success comes in cans, not cannots: It means having more willpower than won’t power. It means not putting yourself in a position to confuse activity with accomplishment. It means, according to William Thompson, Chairman of California-based Thompson Vitamins, that innovators are people who have ‘the ability not just of envisioning the future in an abstract, daydreaming, fantasizing kind of way, but have the interest and the capability and the drive to actually do something about it” (Waitley, D., Seeds of Greatness, Fleming Revell Company, Old Tappan, N.J., 1983).
- Sanction calculated risks: Because creativity is unfailingly riveted to the unknown and untried, it invariably involves risk. However, the risks do not have to be cavalier risks. As Geis reports, the really good out-of-the-box thinkers “turn leaps of faith into plays of percentage” (Geis, G., “How risk takers take risks,” in R. Kuhn (Ed), Handbook For Creative and Innovative Mangers, McGraw Hill, New York), 1988).
These are just twelve of the thousands of ways you can court the Muse. The creative channels are only limited by your desire and ingenuity. We assure you that once you openly embrace your out-of-the-box thinking nature you will be surprised at how prodigious you are at finding creative solutions to any and all situations and circumstances that toss curve balls at you.
One of our favorite people who was good at “hitting curve balls” was Apple Computer’s founder Steve Jobs. He described his feelings about innovation: “The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.” We believe the same holds true for all of us: The cure for what challenges or ails us is for us to innovate our way out of any and all predicaments.
Creativity isn’t just about being an architect or an artist; it’s about how you use your mind. From the Stone Age innovator who took two flints and sparked fire to the inventors who studied sand and conceived the silicon chip, out-of-the-box thinking has transformed the world we live in. And it’s likely to be even more important in the coming decades, as we try to solve a host of complex problems: how to develop novel energy sources; bring peace to unstable regions; and find better and more affordable ways to treat diseases (Pfaff, L., Thrive in 2025: Inspire Creativity, Parents Magazine online post/March 2, 2013).