‘Think outside the box’ is one of the biggest creativity cliches. The basic idea is that to be creative you need to challenge your own assumptions and look at things from a fresh angle. You need to break out of conventional thinking and take off the blinkers formed by past experience.
But is that really how creativity happens? And will learning to ‘think outside the box’ help you become more creative?
The phrase is generally held to have originated with the classic ‘nine-dot’ creativity puzzle. If you haven’t seen this problem before, try to solve it before scrolling down and reading the rest – you’ll get a lot more out of this article.
Get a pen and some paper and copy the nine dots arranged in a square below. To solve the problem, you need to join all nine dots by drawing no more than four straight lines. The straight lines must be continuous – i.e. you must not lift your pen from the paper once you start drawing. Don’t read any further until you’ve tried to solve the problem.
How did you get on? If you managed to solve it, give yourself a pat on the back and read on. If you’re not there yet, here’s a clue to help you. If you’re like most people, you will have tried to solve the problem by keeping your lines inside the ‘box’ created by the dots. But if you look at the instructions, there is no requirement to do this. So have another go at solving the problem, allowing yourself to draw outside the box. Again, don’t read any further until you’ve either solved it or given up.
OK if you’ve either solved it or had enough, click here to see two of the usual solutions.
What did you make of that? Could you solve the problem the first time? Did it make any difference when I said you could go outside the box?
The Conventional Explanation
The usual way of presenting this problem is for a creativity trainer to only give the first set of instructions – i.e. without mentioning the fact that you allow to go outside the box. And nearly everybody (including me, when I first saw it) completely fails to solve the problem. But most creativity trainers don’t bother with the second stage – they simply reveal the solution to cast of astonishment and protest from the audience: “that’s not fair! You didn’t tell us we could go outside the box!” To which the trainer typically responds “Aha! But I didn’t tell you you couldn’t go outside the box!”.
The trainer then trots out the conventional explanation of the puzzle: we can’t solve the problem as long as we are thinking ‘inside the box’ created by our assumptions. Once we start to think ‘outside the box’ we open up many more possibilities and it becomes easy to solve the problem. This is true in so many areas of life – our education, past experience and habitual thinking patterns keep us trapped in limiting assumptions. It takes a real effort to challenge the assumptions and think outside the box. Most of us are very poor at doing this and have to work hard at it – unlike creative geniuses to whom this kind of thinking comes naturally.
In case you think I’m having a go at creativity trainers I’ll confess that a few years ago, on a couple of occasions, I was that trainer. Never again.
Challenging Creative Convention
The trouble with the usual way of presenting the nine-dot problem is that it contains (ahem) an unexamined assumption. I.e. that all we have to do is tell people they can go outside the box and they will find it easy to solve the problem. But most of the time people are not given the chance to find out – they are simply given the solution and told that the problem was their limited thinking. They are usually so astonished to discover that they are allowed to draw outside the box that they readily accept this explanation.
A few researchers have been sceptical and curious enough to test this assumption. In Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius Robert Weisberg describes two experiments in which people were told that the only way to solve the problem was to draw lines outside the square. Contrary to the ‘outside the box’ school of thought, this did not make problem easy to solve. In fact, only 20-25% of subjects were able to solve the problem, even though all of them allowed themselves to draw outside the box. And even the ones who did solve the problem took a long time to do so, and used trial and error, making many different drawings, rather than any special form of ‘creative thinking’.
Researchers went on to show that the success rate could be improved by giving subjects prior training in solving simpler line-and-dot problems, and also by giving them “detailed strategy instructions” about how to solve the problem:
Lung and Dominowski’s strategy instructions plus dot-to-dot.training facilitated solution of the nine-dot problem, but still only a little more than half of the subjects solved the problem, and they did so not smoothly in a sudden burst of insight, but only after a number of tries. This study provides particularly graphic evidence that insightful behaviour, contrary to the Gestalt view, is the result of expertise.
Robert Weisberg, The Myth of Genius
So the research evidence suggests that thinking outside the box fails to produce the expected creative solution. And far from being a hindrance, past experience and training can actually be the key to creative problem-solving.
What Do You Think?
If the problem was new to you, could you solve it just by following the original instructions?
Did it make any difference when you were told you could go outside the box?
Is ‘thinking outside the box’ a useful way to approach creativity or does it deserve its status as the most despised piece of business jargon? Or is it simply that, as Brian likes to say, there is no box?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.