Why Thinking “Outside the Box” Is Not Very Creative

Why Thinking “Outside the Box” Is Not Very Creative

By Orin Davis

I’m not sure who got people to believe that creativity is about “thinking outside the box,” but lots of people are talking about it. I have seen it in a slew of blog posts, articles and job descriptions and I have fielded any number of questions about it from companies that want to hire “creative” people.

Managers want to hire people who do this “outside-the-box” thing because they think that these special thinkers will be able to come up with wild ideas and solutions that will make effective problem solving and breakthrough innovation happen on a daily basis. Need I point out that, just as hiring passionate people does not promote passion in the workplace, hiring “outside-the-box” thinkers does not produce creativity in a workplace that does not support creative options. Insofar as many managers do not know how to handle talent, looking for these kinds of thinkers is a waste of time without the managerial infrastructure for nurturing them.

The bigger problem, however, is that “outside-the-box” thinking isn’t very creative!

The Origin of “Thinking Outside the Box”

The origin of the term comes from the famous nine-dot problem, which goes like this: In the picture below, connect all the dots using no more than four straight lines and without lifting your writing implement from the paper. As a hint, you will need to think outside the box to do this successfully. The common solution to the problem is at the bottom of this article.


People suggest that those who can think outside the box (made of the nine dots) are more creative, because many cannot conceive of drawing a line that extends beyond the dimensions of the box. Hence, those who can think “outside-the-box” can go beyond the basic assumptions of conventional, [box-]bounded thinking. No doubt there are many who would give up on the puzzle without solving it, and thus the ability to find the solution above suggests a certain willingness to think beyond the boundaries of convention.

That said, people who find the solution above are not really going beyond the standard thinking, as they are still rooted in the boundaries of the box. They may have colored outside the lines a bit, but their thinking is still largely confined to the assumptions of box-oriented thinking. If there is a judgment to be made about these people, it is that they may be willing to go beyond the conventional boundaries a bit, but still stay within sight of home base. These are not people who come up with outlandish solutions that flush the format and tell conventional wisdom where to stick it.

Boxless Thinking

The people who come up with truly novel solutions do not just go beyond the boundaries of an assumption.  Instead, they actually negate one or more of the assumptions.  For example, one of the assumptions is that the writing implement draws a relatively thin line.  What if it didn’t?

Orin Davis missing image 1

Another assumption is that the dots are arranged on a flat plane.  Here’s that assumption tossed out the window:

Orin Davis missing image 2

For a really geeky example, no one said that the space is Euclidean – thus, the line below is straight once the presumption of Euclidean space is discarded:

Orin Davis Missing image 3

All three of the solutions above fit the standard definition of “creative,” namely novel and useful (Hennessey and Amabile, 2010). Not only that, all three of the solutions above shatter one of the implicit assumptions laid out in the problem, while the “outside-the-box” solution is included in the hint. Even when there is no hint, people tend to group items for easy cognitive processing (better known as the Gestaltist Law of Proximity), and thus there is a tendency to group the nine dots into a defined square. Ergo, drawing a line outside of the boundary of the box still requires that one see most of the conventions relevant to the problem. By contrast, the latter three solutions require overcoming the tendency to see the pattern as a square and refrain from using any of the conventional aspects of the problem, including the borders and the box, and thus are exhibiting boxless thinking.

This raises the question of whether companies want people whose thinking is only slightly divergent, as in the case of “outside-the-box” thinkers, or strongly divergent, as in the case of the people who diverge entirely from the norm and toss out all of the potential assumptions. Those who want truly creative thinkers will need to find those who are neither trapped by the box nor tethered to it.

Of course, divergent thinking is in no way the only fashion in which people can be creative; idea fluency, remote associations, and tolerance of ambiguity are just three of the many ways in which people can be “creative.” Thus, using any single puzzle to identify “creative” types is a waste of time, and may even end up bringing in people who aren’t very creative!

But what about companies that claim to hire only the cream of the crop and use those puzzles as weed-outs? Research by Google found the puzzles they use to hire people don’t actually predict success at Google. About the same can be said for most of the brain teasers used. Consulting firms are a bit of an exception on this because they do not really care whether people solve the puzzle and focus more about whether the thinking process is clear and organized, and whether person can work collaboratively to get a usable answer.

How do you think companies should test applicants’ and employees’ methods of problem-solving?

Solution to the nine-dot problem:


Image © isobe.typepad.com

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