Why Trying to Think Outside The Box is a Waste of Time

Done right, ideas have the power to change the world. Just look at the iPhone.

Before it was invented, flip phones were all the rage and you had to navigate around using a keypad. After the iPhone, touchscreens and swiping became the norm.

But coming up with groundbreaking ideas isn’t easy. You don’t get great ideas by sitting in a stuffy conference room and telling people to “think outside the box”. It won’t work.

Telling people to think outside the box is useless

Whenever a group of people comes together to brainstorm, someone inevitably says they need to think “outside the box” and be more original. That’s great, but it’s also useless. What does thinking outside the box even mean?

To think outside the box, you first have to define where the edges are. And that’s where the problems begin.

What is “the box”, anyway? Is it your comfort zone? Your brain? Your reality? Thinking outside of your own brain/reality would generate incredible ideas — if it were possible. Unfortunately, it’s like asking someone to come up with a new primary color.

All of our ideas are derived from — or are a combination of — things we’ve seen and experienced in the past. Asking someone to think outside of that experience is like asking them to think of something they don’t know. It’s impossible. You can only go to the edges of “the box”, but never outside of it.

One way to try and bypass this limitation is to bring in other people. They have different experiences, different beliefs, different brains, different boxes. If you put them all together, chances are someone will think of something the other person hasn’t thought of.

The issue then becomes one of similarity. Certain jobs attract certain types of people. Engineering problems attract — surprise surprise — engineers. And while they’ll be able to come up with creative solutions, the problem will be approached from an engineering perspective. In this case, you’re not thinking outside of the box, you’ve just increased the size of it.

Now, what about bringing in people from different departments? Sure, that helps bring in people with different skill sets and interests, but you’re still just increasing the size of the box. You end up with people who grew up in the same area or work for the same company.

Remote work solves the location issue by allowing companies to hire people from around the world, but again it increases the size of the box. Today, true remote work (as in hiring people from around the world) favors younger people who are interested in tech. They’re designers, marketers, programmers, product managers, and so on.

If we want to come up with innovative ideas, we need a way to learn from people with who we have nothing in common or who don’t work in our industry. That’s very difficult to do. The chances that a designer at a tech company gets to share knowledge with an oil rig mechanic are slim.

To generate great ideas, get clear about the problem first

Generating great ideas is about connecting unrelated concepts to each other.

But if you’re unclear what the problem is or what you’re looking for, you can’t come up with good solutions.

Think of it this way: if I gave you a blank piece of paper and asked you to draw “something”, it makes it more difficult to come up with something good. Now if I gave you a piece of paper and asked you to draw a cute animal, it will be much easier to come up with ideas.

Sometimes, though, what looks like the problem isn’t the real problem. Let’s use an example from Rory Sutherlands’s book Alchemy:

Let’s say you’re the head of public transport and your task is to fix a large number of delays that have been happening. When thinking about this problem, most people assume the trains are the problem. Making them more reliable would cost billions of dollars. But why do people not like it when their train is delayed?

“Well, people don’t like waiting.” That’s a fair point, but people don’t mind standing in an elevator or waiting for their Uber to arrive. Waiting in and of itself doesn’t seem to be the problem. The problem is the uncertainty that’s caused by the waiting. When a train is delayed, you don’t just have to wait, but you’re not sure how long you’ll have to wait. It could be five minutes, it could be an hour, or the train could get canceled. Waiting for a delayed train makes you worry whether you’ll have to reschedule your day or not.

Fixing the uncertainty caused by the delay is a much easier and cost-effective problem to fix. Putting an indicator on the platform that a train is X minutes late might as well do the trick.

You need to keep asking yourself why the problem is a problem in the first place (the 5 why technique helps). Only then will you get to the core of it.

This is harder than it sounds, though. It’s tempting to make assumptions about what the problem is (eg: “The trains are too slow”) and forget to question the problem itself. You need a mix of curiosity, detachment, and non-acceptance to do the 5 why technique properly.

Once you have a clear problem you have something to connect ideas to. Now you can start to look for creative solutions.

Look at other industries and fields for similar problems

We all like to think our jobs are unique and other industries cannot relate to what we doing. That’s simply not true.

If you strip away the details, a marketer and a dietitian have the same job. They’re both trying to persuade another person to take a certain action. That means that both of them would benefit from looking at how the other person is doing their job.

Stripping away all the irrelevant details from the problem you’re trying to solve will make it easier for you to look at the examples in other fields. You might find out that other industries have already solved the same problem before.

The catch here is that not all ideas you find in other industries relate to what you’re doing. It’s more like a puzzle where you take a piece and see if it fits. The further you go from your field, the harder this becomes, but also the more interesting and “out of the box” your ideas will be. If you’re a marketer for a SaaS company, looking at marketers for video games isn’t going to get you many interesting ideas — it’s too similar.

But if you look at what a maintenance engineer is doing on an oil rig and you manage to relate that to your marketing job, you’ll get ideas your competition never thought off.

Biomimicry is a good example of this. Engineers look at the animal kingdom to see how they could tackle problems. This has led to inventions such as swimsuits based on sharkskin or a wing design based on humpback whales.

Gather ideas when you don’t need them

Trying to come up with ideas right before you need them is kind of like wanting to pick apples before growing an apple tree. You should have started a lot sooner.

Turning idea gathering into a habit is one of the most effective ways to consistently come up with good ideas. Having a swipe file of successful headlines, quotes, case studies, or designs helps you get the creative juices flowing.

The more ideas you gather and the more you try to see how they relate to each other, the more original ideas that you will have. And the further removed that those ideas are from each other, the more they will seem “out-of-the-box”.

Now, gathering information and taking notes is a topic in and of itself. If you don’t know where to start, you can check out my post on creating a second brain in obsidian.

It takes a while to get going, but it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever do.