Thinking About the Box

When 'Thinking Outside the Box'

Posted May 19th 2016 by

We often hear the cliche‘ 'thinking outside the box', which leads people to quickly take their thinking from inside the box, where the problem is presumed to be, to outside the box to find a solution. Have you ran into trouble doing this? If your life is solving problems, you most certainly have. Let’s unpack this proverbial box a bit more to learn you first must understand the problem in relation to the box, prior to attempting to solve the problem.

When one first identifies a problem, there are characteristics you must define before you can start to solve the problem.
  • Is the problem inside the box?
  • Is the problem anchored inside the box?
  • Is the problem systemic of the box?
  • Is the box bounding the problem?

Where is the Problem:

If one must think outside the box for a solution, it is presumed the solution must come from outside the box, as we made the proverbial box the container of the problem. Be careful when assuming this is always true. Trying to find a solution outside the box can lead to finding a solution that does not fit into the box.

We typically see the box as one's knowledge, or thinking, or experience. We then believe that thinking outside the box is to be more creative; finding solutions others could not see. I argue that thinking first about the box, and how it relates to the problem, leads to a deeper understanding of the problem, and therefore a more creative, better suited, more permanent solution. Simply finding a solution far from the inside of the box is not always best.

Is the problem inside the box, that is, people's thinking, or is it another constraint? Is the problem related to people or objects? Where is the problem in relation to who is affected by it? Ultimately, solutions to tough problems come from creativity and knowledge. However, most creativity is spent not in finding the solution, but convincing others of the solution. In this post I look at how I approach a problem.

First, we should determine what is the actual problem, by tracing cause and effect. You may find people pointing at a perceived problem, which may only be hot spots caused by tension, a given effect produces they don’t like. Cause will have effects, which in turn will cause other effects. Resolving effects will only work short term and is never preferred over solving the root cause of the problem. You will spend much of your time trying to put out fires if you don’t first identify the root cause. Don't be hasty in this process even when people pressure you to fix the effect that is in front of them.


If the problem is anchored inside the box, finding solutions outside the box will be a grievous effort because the problem does not want, or cannot, be solved outside its constraints. You find this with people who say ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’. The best solution can be outside the box, but some will never see it, or even acknowledge it.

Other problems may not stem from a person, but an object restrained within its location due to logistics, environmental, financial, or other reasons. You then must ask, can the problem be released from its constraints, or can a solution be brought in from outside the box, or must I find a solution from within the box itself? The problem might not want to, or is not able to move, but solutions may be. This will help you direct your efforts in the right direction.

If the box is the current thinking or creativity of people, and you try to find a solution outside of that constraint, you may just frustrate those who have the problem in which you are trying to solve. At this point, it is more creative to find a solution within these constraints. Sometimes people don't want the best solution, but one that requires the least effort on their part.


Is the problem due to the box itself? The materials of the box, its shape, size, configuration. What constraints are coming from the box? Can the box be removed, moved, or altered? This can be as difficult as the anchored problem, as often, the box itself can’t be changed, or changed in enough meaningful ways. Solutions outside the box have to be carefully considered as they will interact with the box, which is symbiotic to the problem.

Like the anchored problem, if the systemic problem is tied to people, they may not have the ability to, or more likely the desire to, understand, or go along with your lofty creative solution. This can be extremely hard, as changing people's minds takes patience and skill. Try to put as much of your explanation into their vernacular as you can. Change is not often easy for most people. Spend some of that creativity in minimizing the impact on current procedures, if of course, the problem isn't the procedure itself. If so, can the procedure be tweaked instead of drastically changed?


If the box is simply holding the problem in, therefore the problem is not anchored within the box, nor the box itself is causing the problem, then you are free to solution the problem from outside the box with little hindrance. Could you just lift the box up to reveal the bright light of new ideas radiating from outside the box, and that be enough?

Often this happens when people inside the box don’t have the experience, or creativity, to see solutions beyond their current perspective. This is the typical 'thinking outside the box' we keep hearing about. You find a solution, educate those inside the box, and to the next problem you go. Most of the time people just need a clear pathway to the solution and direction on how to work around the box.

The Person:

When dealing with processes, technology, or workflow; triaging the problem in relation to the box is, for the most part, easy. However, the drama starts when the problem is tied to people, their beliefs, world views, expectations, or perceptions. This is the most difficult to solve, but one that can be resolved if given enough effort into understanding the people first. Often the problem with people is their abilities, their stubbornness to change, or how they view the problem by how it affects them.

How does this person come to the problem (how do they intersect with the problem)? What role do they have in its resolution? How do the effects of the problem affect the person? What is their emotional investment into the problem? Do they live to love the problem? Some people simply don’t want problems solved because the problem is how they self-identify within the work place. Their life finds meaning within the drama of the problem, and resolving it will remove their perceived value. Very creative thinking is needed here as you will have to contend with personalities, most often fragile. Focus on perception and expectations is critical. Keep in mind that most people don’t like to give up one thing, without having another firmly grasped.

One of the best tools you will have in resolving this type of problem is segmentation. Take the problem, and the solution(s) and segment them into their smallest objects. Ask questions related to these objects individually to determine where this person has the strongest objections and greatest compliances. You should be able to quickly build a list of what won't happen, may happen, will happen, from which you can augment your solution to fix the problem.


The question as to where your solution is in relation to the box, should only come once you understand where the problem is in relation to the box!

You can systematically solve a problem when you first identify the root cause of the problem. Then remove as much emotional attachment to the problem and solution. Provide clear steps to achieve the solution. Be willing to work with individuals to get buy-in to your solutions, as some may be in agreement within groups, as to not sound as if they don’t understand the solution, but later, work against the solutions. You should also be willing to be there to carry out the solution. Not only does this make some feel more comfortable, but it allows you to tweak the solution and ensure its success.

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