Why Thinking “Outside the Box” Doesn’t Work

‘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.

Nine Dots Puzzle

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 on the image below to see two of the usual solutions. Each time you click, a new solution will be revealed.


Nine Dots Puzzle

Solution 1
Solution 2
Clear Solutions

You may need to click through to the post to see the 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 Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. You guys have definitely opened up a can of worms on this one, and I’m loving the interactive blog posts lately, definitely setting you guys apart.

    On one hand I agree with you, to be creative we don’t always need to look for a far-fetched or out there angle. However, I think the phrase gives meaning to help people try something different, after-all not everything has been done



    • Creativity – you are born with or you are not. No amount of training helps. Also, what you fail to mention is risk. Unless you are willing to take risk, you can’t be creative. Lastly, over the past many centuries, you can probably count on two hands the truly creative. Discussions of creativity are folly.

      • Discussions of creativity are folly.

        Only if you insist on making sweeping statements without an argument or evidence to back them up. Or even putting your name to your comments.

  2. Interesting post, very good food for thought.

    I really liked your last little bit about past experience and training.

    I always figured it depends on how you define “outside the box” or how you define “box”.

    Quite often where I work now, if I “think outside the box” that really only requires me to draw on past experience and/or past training, just as was suggested!


  3. I have to agree with Weisberg’s observations. I was previously aware of the puzzle and that the solution entailed drawing outside the box. However it took me quite some time and considerable trial and error before I found a solution.

  4. I believe there is no box. Period- my opinion of course. I do believe in persistence though…

    I also think that creativity depends on mindset. Eienstein said that he wasn’t smarter than anyone else, he was just more persistent than most. It can be easily argued that he was pretty smart however.

    Without a box, persistence is the key as far as I am concerned. In order to be persistent, one has to actually believe they can solve problems with new solutions.

    Biggest obstacle I find in dealing with people in the business world is their inability to do anything outside of what they have done in the past. They do live in a box. Successful leadership is dependent on innovation and creativity. “Waiting for things to get better” is not creative or innovative…

    Creativity starts with an idea. If the result of the idea is not within tolerance (standards) developed through previous achievements (or lack thereof), it is often rejected by the mind.

    This is a can o’ worms; a paradox?

    Great topic for discussion though- I love this stuff!

  5. Not too long ago, I saw another solution that only requires one line. But to do this, you have to think “outside the box” but think about a solution IN the box. I wish I could give credit to the author who described the (I think) 12 year old girl who solved the problem with one line, but I just don’t remember the article.

    Hint: there is no requirement to use thin pencil lead.

    • Solving the puzzle with one broad stroke of a thick brush over the 9 dots is not the solution. “There is no requirement to use thin pencil lead”, but there is something as an accepted definition of a line. According to geometry, a line has length but no width.

      • Hi Sunigbo,
        Would it be ok to cut up the paper and put the dot’s in a line ;)?

      • what about the assumption that when connecting dots, you can’t intersect a previously drawn line? what about the assumption the dots are points, so the 3 line solution can’t work?

        these so called brain teasers are often fraught with inconsistent assumption violations…

        so if the 3 and 4 line solutions are acceptable, so is the one

        the formulation should be “connect these spheres with four lines; you may make the lines arbitrarily long and you may intersect lines”…

        i think the intersection is the real misleader here…

        these trick questions need to be called out…

        my other favorite is the fox-chicken in boat… most places in the world, you woudn’t leave a chicken unattended while you go back for the fox…

        “how many animals did moses put on the arc”; the important part of the q is how many animals not who did it, so the correct answer is 2, not “It wasn’t moses”

        is there such thing as a good brain teaser? or should one just solve math/physics problems?

  6. @Marvin – That’s actually my favorite solution, and I was going to include it. But then I just knew we’d get a ton of “that’s cheating” comments 🙂 .

  7. There’s a box. There is no box. Which I choose to follow depends on which situation faces me.

    Tell me that my house is burning and that solving the puzzle will put out the fire and save my belongings, and I’ll bet I could solve it faster.

    Present it to me in the morning when I’m still working on coffee, and I’ll see it as a frustrating, unsolvable challenge. Then I’ll yell, “NO FAIR!” and think dire thoughts about the person who tricked me.

    So, my take is that it’s all relative to our motivation, inspiration and desire to find the solution to the challenges we face.

    Or maybe I need more coffee. 🙂

  8. The concept that “thinking outside the box” often requires training and practice to do effectively intrigues me. I was able to think of a couple different examples in my own experience (in chemical formulation and in art) where practice in simpler forms made my solution to complex forms more creative, but I’d never looked at it that way before. Thanks for the insight.

  9. This reminds me of the recent opinion of group brainstorming that has surfaced over the last few years. It was commonly thought that getting a large group together and throwing out ideas was the best way to solve a problem or come up with a good idea.

    Generally, you get a bunch of bad ideas and waste time and effort wading through them to get to a mediocre one at best.

    When I first encountered such an idea, that brainstorming like this was useless, I was troubled, but the more I thought about it, I realized that the best ideas I have had have come through my own brainstorming or a session with just one other person.

    Your entry about this was spot on. Real creatives find new rules to the equation and aren’t bound by what is present. Using lines to connect the dots even “outside the box” isn’t really that creative, especially with all the trial and error.

    Here’s my solution to the problem: (and it only took one line – no one said how thick the line was supposed to be 🙂 )


    The reason I like this site is that it challenges all this conventional “wisdom” and “rules” that our society seems to have imposed on us even within our own industries. Beethoven was genius because he “broke” the rules of music at the time. Stravinski did the same.

    So, my suggestion to creatives is to know the rules so you can break them in way that presents real solutions and genius.

  10. It’s about time more people came out and trashed this cliche.

    Sure, thinking outside the box is creativity. But people forget the basics, the fundamentals. They try to go to 10 without counting 0, 1, 2.

    How can you think outside the box if you don’t know what the box looks like? How about understanding how the box looks like and *then* you draw your *own* box?

    You can’t just pull ideas out of thin air. Boxes often contain presents inside. That’s what they’re for.

  11. I always dread hearing a client or co-worker say the words ‘ think outside the box.’ Am still owkring on a better way to say it.

  12. Most hated business jargon, maybe not. Over used, absolutely.

    I guess it doesn’t matter how helpful, creative, or original jargon is, if it catches on, it always rises (sinks?) to the level of cliche’ at some point.

    Many other ways to look at it, even using box as the basic —

    Look in a different box
    Look in somebody else’s box
    Put it in a bigger box

    Who knows?

    • Yes, well that’s what I did with the puzzle,
      why not just draw a bigger box around the dots,
      they’re joined inside a box right?

      Look in somebody else’s box is a great retort.

  13. Outstanding point.

    I’m putting this on my trivia/problem solver board here at my office.

    Something to test out on my colleagues.

  14. @Alyssa….I tire of overused clichés – so much in fact that I try to not use any in my vocabulary. Instead of saying “thinking outside the box” I say it with normal language, with phrases like: “looking at it differently”, “using a more creative solution”, “approach this uniquely” etc.

  15. @lertom…..exactly. The box are the “rules” and in order to break the “rules” we need to understand the box. Great point.

  16. All creative innovation happens in 5 minutes. It’s getting to those 5 minutes that can take a long time, and be hampered by the great and powerful box (a villainous character I dispatched at our company’s recent innovation conference http://www.powertoinnovate.com).

    Boxes define constraints. Recognizing constraints can and often does lead to breakthrough innovation, if you’re willing to consider applying one of several problem solving methodologies.

    For an example, consider how to eat soup with a fork:


  17. Thanks everyone for the usual high standard of comments.

    Tom, James — yes, I think persistence and motivation are critical to success in any creative work. It’s amazing how often the prize goes to the people who want it the most.

    Marvin, Karl-Erik — thanks for adding to our stock of solutions!

    lertom — Exactly. Banksy made a similar point when he said modern artists are prepared to do anything for art, except to learn to draw. 🙂

    Jim — Yes it can take a lifetime to get to that five minutes, yet that’s what people remember, they’re not so interested in the lifetime’s hard toil. Good point about constraints, total freedom a.k.a. the blank page can be a real creativity killer.

  18. Mark,

    I love this blog post. Thank you. My $.02 below:

    We all will agree that there is a need to think differently if you want to reach a different destination. We can’t expect ourselves to be in a different place in life if we are following where everyone else is going. A placeholder (or a shortcut name) for that thinking can be “thinking outside the box”

    Your particular blog post itself is an example of that kind of creative thinking. You took a problem that someone used to demonstrate the “out of the box thinking” and put the problem and solution “within a box” to demonstrate what I call as “out of the box thinking” 🙂

    We all might dislike the term “outside the box” but the need for thinking differently stays IMHO.


  19. I hope this means people will stop saying that forever. I love this research. Those creative types used that box to hold us nerdy types in check – cause our limited visual skills didn’t allow us to see outside of the existing pattern of dots.

    If you could debunk a couple of other sayings that no longer apply I would be forever grateful :

    “That is a paradigm shift.”
    “Six of one, half dozen of another” (maybe it’s just me and this one bothers me because I’m a CPA – but it drives me INSANE.)
    “We provide evolution not revolution.”
    “Leading edge not bleeding edge.”

  20. And for brainstorming approaches, I love Edward de Bono’s book “Six Thinking Hats”.

    No hat boxes involved.

  21. Raj — 😉

    Geni — give us time …

  22. Great deconstruction of the 9-dot problem!

    Creative “geniuses” nearly always have deep expertise in their field of inquiry with just the right amount of assumption questioning. However they are usually surrounded by other rebel-experts in their field as well, and there is often a timing to their discoveries that stands on the shoulders of giants.

  23. I love Michael Michalko’s perspective of his least fave buzzword in an interview I did with him:

    ““Thinking out of the box” should be replaced with “thinking without boxes.” “Lateral thinking” should be replaced with “generating alternatives. “”

    We make boxes andthen expect people to go outside them! Let’s make cultures where no boxes exist-that’ll be the kicka*^ innovative company!

    Oh, by the way, the rest of the interview is here: http://zenstorming.wordpress.com/2008/10/23/interview-creativity-expert-michalko/

  24. jmrowland says:

    While it’s true that challenging the assumptions does not, in itself, lead to the answer, it’s also true that it’s impossible to arrive at the answer without first challenging (or at least ignoring) the assumptions.

  25. Well, you can create something inside a box, no doubt – the question is then whether this inside-the-box-thinking is helpful. In this case it’s not.
    When you limit yourself to inside-the-box-thinking, you limit the possibilities you have.
    The square says: Assumptions can be limits to yourself, so prove them.
    It’s not about creativity at all.

  26. Great article — Thanks Mark!

    I like to Box Outside of The Thinking… can I still play?

    I can solve the puzzle with one line…

    …and one giant pencil!

  27. I really enjoyed this article – and I like how you go against the grain of preconceived notions.

    At the end of the day one must build a foundation of what has proven to work before they can expand in a successful way.

  28. With apologies to Donovan: First there is a box, then there is no box, then there is.

    Tom Allinder, in post #4: “Einstein said that he wasn’t smarter than anyone else, he was just more persistent than most.”

    Einstein also said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So if the thinking we used when we created / identified our problem is the “box”, then, yes, we need to get “out of the box” — we need to get some new thinking.

    Edison said “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration” (which I interpret as persistence). So, to come full circle back to Tom Allinder’s contribution: “In order to be persistent, one has to actually believe they can solve problems with new solutions.” New solutions require new thinking about the problem. Hence, “out of the box”.

    The over-use of the expression may be regrettable, but I maintain that the underlying idea remains valid. Remember, insanity has been described as doing the same think [sic] over and over and expecting a different result.

  29. I liked the article a great deal and also got a lot out of some of the comments.

    Personally, I still use the phrase “outside the box” at times because it is part of colloquial language and as such can aid understanding / communication. Sometimes it helps achieve a result, rather than risk fostering a focus on semantics, or clouding the issue.

    To me, a key aspect of creative thinking is “Relax”. It frees the mind to flow more freely.

    One of the problems with group brainstorming sessions for example is that people can feel inhibited, and thus less creative. Being told they are “wrong” tends not to help either, which is the impression one can get when an example such as the dot exercise is used in a public setting. Being proven to be “uncreative” or a person with poor thinking skills in such an obvious and public way can be quite damaging to some. It can also alienate the trainer (reduce rapport) from the audience in the sense of “he/she is not like me”.

  30. Great post and comments. Out-of-the-box should mean not doing things the same way they were done before. But to be successful at they you have to deeply understand your problem and the assumptions, constraints and dependencies. And then you challenge all of them.

    What seems to be missing from many conversations on creativity is the importance of the above mentioned critical thinking skills, the playfulness required to break the rules or see around them, and the ability to go right brain when needed to create a holistic solution.

    Einstein spend most of his time studying the problem. To know the problem is to begin to solve the problem.

    I’ve found through the year these visual and sometimes physical puzzles to trivialize the creative process and I believe they can affects some people’s confidence if they can’t solve these sorts of problems. I’ve found no correlation between the ability to solve these visual problems and solving real world problems.

    That said, its fun trying to solve them and any brain exercise is good.

  31. To think outside the box, i will say refers to two concepts.
    One: requires that you first understand the ‘box’ which in most cases refers to the immediate situation at hand. Saying there is no box is like saying there is no problem or pressing situation which does not quite agree with reality.

    Two: the other refers to the ‘box’ as the usual or general approach to solving a particular problem or situation. Here, thinking outside the box connotes going beyond the norm.

    To me, in both cases, thinking outside the ‘box’ holds true in that one needs a firm understanding of both the problem or situation and the tested ways or techniques of approaching the problem or situation. Thinking is the art of problem solving, it’s a tool however we choose to use it depends very much on our understanding of the ‘box’ irrespective of the scenarios cited above.

  32. Saying there is no box is like saying there is no problem or pressing situation which does not quite agree with reality.

    I disagree. Depends on what you call reality. 🙂

  33. I agree with Tom Allinder above. I’d submit that when we witness a seemingly simple solution we do not believe we would not have thought of ourselves, we call it creativity. It’s not really so much thinking outside the box as it is thinking outside *our* box. Everyone has one, even people who are “creative”. This isn’t a flaw, it’s simply the way our minds work. Most effective creative people I know work very, very hard at it.

    Yes, if I were presented this problem and given ample time to solve it, I would be able to come up with solutions. Then I would present it to a crowd over the course of 1 minute, and I would appear to be creative, even a genius. My point is: any of us can do this. “Think outside the box” is a waste of everyone’s time. If we replaced it with the equally cliche “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”, we’d all be better off.

  34. It’s not really so much thinking outside the box as it is thinking outside *our* box.

    Nice point Christian. Often when someone else seems to be thinking ‘outside the box’ they are in fact thinking ‘inside the box’ of a different discipline. From their point of view, the answer is obvious, because it’s based on knowledge and experience that we don’t have.

  35. “Often when someone else seems to be thinking ‘outside the box’ they are in fact thinking ‘inside the box’ of a different discipline. From their point of view, the answer is obvious, because it’s based on knowledge and experience that we don’t have.”

    A simple thing I do to jump out of my discipline’s parameters is go to the bookstore and deliberately browse sections not directly related to my discipline. Frequently, new/innovative ideas come from encouraging my mind to make connections between “not-my-discipline” and my regular way of thinking about things.

  36. The box doesn’t exist.

    Love the article, great “outside the box” thinking. 🙂

  37. thinking outside the box and being creative and innovative
    often has to do with finding a way to cheat something based
    on the way it is initially described. “language proficiency” is therefore a big part of being able to successfully think outside the box.

    let me give you a very eye-opening example which will closely
    match the 9-dot puzzle above:

    a lawyer who understands crystal-clear the language in
    which the law is written/described can manipulate (cheat) his way through the weaknesses and through the many small mistakes that may have been committed by those who initially drafted the law.

    any weaknesses (lack of clarity) in describing something clearly in the beginning presents an opportunity for others to cheat “on the basis” of those weaknesses in the initial description. could this form of cheating “really” be the so-called “creativity” or “genius” ??

    perhaps geniuses are Nothing more than people who can cheat on the basis of careful scrutinization of initial descriptions and capitalizing greatly on just those weaknesses ! !

  38. jukka muhonen says:

    Or just break the rules.

  39. I always hated that nine-dot exercise, and you put the finger on why. Creativity is actually WORK. That’s all. Any writer or artist knows this. If you want to have the creativity of an artist, you have to do what an artist does – as the old joke says: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? PRACTICE!

  40. Maudecat – Thank you, I agree with this statement 99%:

    Creativity is actually WORK. That’s all.

    I do like to leave a 1% space for the magic to happen. 🙂

  41. Patrick says:

    I remember when I first tried to solve this problem:

    – First I asked him if I could get a really thick brush, in that case I could connect the dots with just one straight (but thick) line

    – When he said “no”, I asked the guy if he could give me a pair of scissors. After he declined, I painted the 9 dots making sure there was enough space at the top and the bottom of the piece of paper, carefully tore a cut (if this isnt correct English, Im sorry Im from Germany) between the left and the middle dots starting at the top going almost all the way to the bottom of the piece of paper. Then turned the piece of paper by 180 degrees and did the same thing (tearing the paper between the middle and the (now) left row of dots, starting at the top going almost all the way down). That made it pretty easy to get all the 9 dots, which were in a square (he never said they would have to stay in a square) with a single straight line!

    Then I was made to put on a straight-jacket and only came back from a long vacation trip recently ;-).

    On a more serious note, though…Im wondering if this is really “outside the box” thinking or “critical thinking”. Okay, it obviously is “outside the box”, pretty literally, but when I think of thinking outside the box I think of it as thinking outside the norm..asking the kind of questions that other people have never thought of before, etc.. Whereas the outside-the-box exercise seems to be just as much “critical thinking” to me.

    Like if I asked you…hey yousaid: “To solve the problem, you need to join all nine dots by drawing no more than four straight lines”, right? and then went on to use circling motions or curves to connect the dots (and maybe 3-4 STRAIGHT lines if i still needed them).

    Btw, how do you define a straight line? I just had the thought of using one straight line connecting three dots, but continuing to draw that straight line on the back of that piece of paper to get back to where I started drawing that “straight” line. Once im back at the start (of course Id never stop drawing just slow down dramatically to have enough time) I would turn the piece of paper by about 45 degrees so Im still capable of drawing the same line but connecting some other dots with the same straight line.

    Actually simply solutions are better so Id just connect three dots with a straight line, stop (it isnt against the rules) turn the piece of paper by 90 degrees and continue to draw to connect 2 more points with that same “straight line”, etc.. Nobody mentioned the line had to be straight on that piece of paper, I just had to “draw” a straight line (or well 4 max!), right?;)

    If I arrived at those solutions in about two minutes of playing around with the piece of paper) do I need a straight jacket??lol My math teacher sure thought so…and gave me an F on a maths test, because it only stated “solve the equation” (sorry again if this isnt correct English!) and I multipled every equation with a “0” and got the result 0 = 0 for every equation (it didnt say anything about having to find the value for the unknown variable and it was a math class not a mind-reading class!;)).

    Just out of curiosity, though: How many people actually solve the problem WITHOUT being told they can draw outside the box (or well how many did, when that problem was still unknown?)? Im afraid without getting a lot of time to think about it or being told that I can draw outside the square, I wouldnt have come up with a solution (but once told I had many (and could probably generate more) as you can tell).

    How many percent solved that problem without being told they can draw outside the square?

  42. Patrick says:

    Ive been wondering if “street smarts” exist. Ive also been wondering whether creativity is what makes a person appear street smart vs. another who doesnt? Any ideas?

    PS: “Creativity is actually work” / 1 % for the magic to happen.

    I know people who are so uncreative, I tried to use parental control software to limit my online time (yes Im indeed a little bit crazy) and they told me “well…there’s just one big problem with your idea” – “Which one?” – “You’ll know the password”. He was actually serious about it and I bet the thought of writing down a random complicated password, typing it into the parental control software quickly and then giving the piece of paper with the password to a friend (or a family member as I did) is something that someone with that rather low level of creativity will probably never be able to come up with, no matter how hard he works.

    I agree with the concept of creativity needing to be put into action or else it’s useless, but there are certainly different levels of creativity in people and those who arent creative enough can work hard all day long, theyll not come up with too many creative solutions.

  43. “How many people actually solve the problem WITHOUT being told they can draw outside the box ” – Not many.

  44. It is misleading when it says ‘it becomes easy when people are told to think outside the box’ (or something similar), because actually only 20% solved the problem given this information. Granted this is a large amount more than without this information, but by no means does it become ‘easy’, as I’m sure the 20% shows.

  45. This is an interesting topic to me as I have been looking for ways to be more creative for about the past year. I have often wondered if the ability to come up with novel ideas is innate or if it is learned.

    For instance, can someone like me, who grew up in a family and environment filled with “conventional” thinkers that not only did not question the status quo but actually insisted on and even enforced conformity, ever become creative? I often worry that it just won’t happen for me no matter how hard I try.

    Some other posters mentioned that people are able to come up with new ideas because they have experience and knowledge of a particular discipline that others do not have. Creativity is deeper than this though. It is the ability to make connections and see patterns that others cannot. I have observed some that are able to do this and not only do they tend to ask many questions – they answer smart questions. Questions that make you think, “why didn’t I think about that?” These people also tend to be of well above average intelligence too. Is creativity, then, linked to IQ?

  46. @ Rosie – Yep, that’s exactly my point.

    @ Tee –

    Is creativity, then, linked to IQ?

    I remember looking at some research that concluded creativity isn’t strongly correlated with IQ. A lot of creative work does require a certain level of intelligence, but you can have a very high IQ without necessarily being very creative.

    can someone like me, who grew up in a family and environment filled with “conventional” thinkers that not only did not question the status quo but actually insisted on and even enforced conformity, ever become creative?

    YES! Creativity isn’t about where you came from, it’s about what you make of life now and in the future. It’s not something you either ‘are’ or aren’t – it’s something you DO.

    Thinking “I’m not creative” is actually a very common creative block – have a read of my article about it, and see if it helps.

  47. Bill Bays says:

    When God created all things, one of the first stories is how He brought the animals to Adam to see what he would name them as recorded in the book of Genesis. Whether or not you believe this account is not the point. It is to recognize that Adam had no frame of reference from which to come up with names. And I contend that there are unique challenges even today while also recognizing that many “inventions” are the result of building on what already existed. Lets use both!

  48. It looks like the Professor of Psychology – Weisberg got it all muddled up here. Where does creativity/ ingenuity come in when you provide all the clues or worse still, previous training as is being touted by Mcguiness and co?

  49. No Becky, it looks like you’ve got it muddled up. The point is that the overwhelming majority of people fail to solve the problem using ‘creativity/ingenuity’ (whatever you mean by that). And even when they are given the allegedly ‘correct’ answer, it fails to help them solve the problem.

  50. Alice Cochrane-murray says:

    I am currently studying creative brand management and am told to ‘think outside the box’ on a regular basis. When my lecturer explains how to broaden your mind and grasp those idea’s in which you create by challenging my assumptions – that’s just it. I challenge my assumptions, therefore creating my own box.

    ‘Thinking outside the box’ makes the creative process of idea’s daunting, to me anyway. I feel as if i have to think outside the box in which everybody else places their ides. That’s a pretty large box… It’s overwhelming! Adding to the box that pretty much everything has been done…

    My own interpretations would be
    Assuming the absurd
    Leaving your comfort zone
    Stepping out of your shoes

    I find this so interesting, it may be that I’m studying advertising and feel the need to know it. But regardless of that, your blog is fantastic. And I will most definitely keep in mind that “past experience and training can actually be the key to creative problem solving.”

  51. Cathrine Cochrane-Murray says:


    I think one needs to establish what exactly a box is before deducing an argument/opinion about thinking outside that particular ‘box’.

    For example, is a box: ‘social norms’; ‘ a person’s past experiences’; ‘engrained behaviour/way of thinking as a result of upbringing, social pressures, nature vs nurture’… etc.

    My opinion is that any thinking that is original, and can be justified/verified/makes sense to the receiver/recipient will work…

  52. I like the article (and this blog), but I think this specific “dot-test” now functions as an analogy for creative thinking, rather than a technique.

    Creative thinking breaks rules and works within them. But I think rules are an important part of creative thinking. They are the pre-exisitng structures of thought that creativity reinvents.

    You know, the old “all poems are made out of other poems.” A bad writer and bad thinker, tries to just “think different” and does something completely radical. You have to have a great respect and understanding of why conventions exist before you can throw them away and replace them with new ones.

    I think that a truly creative thinker looks for the underlying logic that made conventions become conventions in the first place.

    For example, rather than use rhyming couplets, they just saw rhymes as a way to organize raw sound and language into patterns–the same basic principle which can be done with line breaks and snytax in free verse.

    It’s all about the purpose of the pattern, rather than just stuffing things into the pattern.

    The same goes for advertising. Everybody does print ads, TV spots, and websites. But they forget that the original purpose of all those things was to reach people and form a relationship between a company’s promise and an audience.

    Creative thinking ussually just opens up habits of thought, and allow a greater efficiency by using a fresh pattern that works better.

    But I majored in modernism, so I would say that it is all about aformality and efficiency.

    Love the blog. And thanks for the War of Art deal today, I read some and then wrote for an hour straight.

  53. first time someone asked me this problem i was 14.
    and i ask if i can do it only with a line that turn 2 times…
    he tell me that is impossible….
    i prove that is possible…

    yes, when thinking out of the box, infinite is your friend

    best regards

  54. Michael says:

    I understand the argument that you are trying to make but I disagree with your interpretation of research study you cited. Yes, only a small percentage was able to solve the problem knowing that they could literally think of a solution that went outside of the box of 9 dots. However, they are not doing the kind of thinking that the expression “think outside the box” really refers to. That is why they still can’t solve it. They are most likely still thinking within the acceptable structures that their experience and education had made more them, such as trying to draw lines that make familiar shapes.

    • Thanks for an alternative viewpoint Michael, although I’m afraid I’m not persuaded.

      They are most likely still thinking within the acceptable structures that their experience and education had made more them, such as trying to draw lines that make familiar shapes.

      That assumption looks like another box to me. 😉

  55. Thinking outside the box has an analogy from frontier days, namely, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Practical and/or theoretical perspectives can be either constraints or releases of the creative effort in thinking. Education has a tendency to bind one’s mind to certain familiar ways of approaching matters, new or old, when the situation might call for a totally off-the-wall method. It is like the farmer who gets in a rut, literally or figuartively. Once your in and find it comfortable, you don’t want to change. Then problems emerge and things grow uncomfortable to the point where you have to try smething different. Eventually, you learn that thinking can’t always be conventional, that if you are not looking at issues from many diffrent angles and devising methods accordingly for different outcomes, you will find your self in the cul-de-sac of a treadmill going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. Intellctualism is a wide open ball game that is challenging every time you really begin to think.

  56. Kate Bailey says:

    After reading this, I started to think that the main problem with the whole ‘box’ example is that it’s just a thought exercise presented as a graphic and that for some reason, people accept that this means it’s some kind of valid commentary on the incredibly rich, networked human experience.

    It’s just a thought exercise someone dreamed up, ostensibly to demonstrate some greater truth about how people engineer solutions to problems. How exactly this is supposed to offer any insight whatsoever into the incredibly complex human decision-making process utterly baffles me. It’s so simplistic, reductive, metaphoric; you could make it signify anything. Why not have someone draw a cat and then improvise a meaningful commentary around their imagery? “Oh your cat has short whiskers; you must suffer from a paucity of imagination.”

    Just because it seems to demonstrate a mental process doesn’t mean that it actually models with any accuracy the ACTUAL mental process by which people tackle problems and invent new solutions. This is one of the great logical fallacies of the age; that a pat schematic must axiomatically be a truthful or relevant model for our minds, or the economy or any other vastly complicated interwoven system. The more we learn about how these complex systems work, the more we seem to realise that neat models are hardly if ever accurate.

    So while I agree that it is uniquely not a good paradigm for exploring creativity, I also reject any simplistic pat explanation or metaphorical analogy’s ability to offer any insight into anyone’s thinking whatsoever.

  57. it’s common sense that tells people when to think outside of the box. only fools are completely following the rules…graduate high school, going to college and might ending up in another shitty job or owing banks thousands or even millions if they go to name brand schools, then marry, then have kids, and the wife/husband might be abusive, living in a suburb that resemble senior home and pay shitloads of money on their toyota suv, visit their parents who probably scolding the son or daughter from times to times…pretty inside the box, isn’t it? that’s not how i want my life to be. regarding this matters, i’m not only thinking outside of the box, i tear the box it up and living my life with my ways.

    but, at the same time, people do stupid shits when they think outside of the box. that’s because they don’t use their common sense to do things. it’s common sense and life experience that matters how well some do at life, but ability to think outside of the box is required.

  58. You are so correct!

    I was hoping I wasn’t the only smart person here…

  59. Robert Spires says:

    I have solved many business problems by thinking outside the box. Once I learned to not get bogged down by the problem, instead look for the solution. Thinking outside the box expands your vision.

  60. I just drew a box around the nine dots,
    now they’re joined right?

    I like the “look in someone else’s box” retort

  61. Dave Johnson says:

    I was just thinking about the whole box thing yesterday while trying to stay awake at a meeting at school. They were trying to pump us up about our new system of dealing with students who have mental illness and are emotional/behaviorally disordered and/ or on the autism spectrum. Well our new plan is being forced on us by someone who never worked with those type of kids before. So, no expertise. The person is not even in the box. I agree you need to know what the box is about before you can even think about getting out of it to think. Our old box worked well. At times we could step outside and look in and gain new insight to make changes. Now, I wonder what box we are in. I have heard that phrase so many times this year it means nothing to me. In my experience in education if you think outside the box (with knowledge of the box) you get in trouble. It is a phrase the boss uses to push their own agenda.

  62. Anyone who uses this phrase (unless they are completely joking or making fun) never ever really wants thinking outside the box. I have been in a creative field for 20 years and every single time this phrase is used we end up making the same old stuff everyone has seen a thousand times before. This cliché is a sure sign of an amateur who thinks creativity is fun and not really hard work. They also enjoying “seeing what you come up with” only to slowly and painfully turn it into garbage little by little and never right to your face but thru channels that avoid confronting the people who were given the challenge.

  63. Well I think outside of carton!

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  65. “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.”

    Aha! So, you can rearrange the dots and join them with only one line!
    That not prohibited either.

  66. Harold Hourie says:

    Currently in the process of figuring out how people learn to think outside the box. The “not” specifying restrictions and such does in fact give those the power to go beyond what’s written in instructions. I myself want to become skilled in this area, but first want to know all about how it works. Lol, call me witty if you will…

  67. Thinking out side the box to me, actually refers to most people thinking that 9dot square pattern is a box. But a box is not a square, its a shape. When you think out-side the box you see those 9dots turn to
    27 squared.

  68. Just because people are told to “think outside the box” and fail at it(still can’t solve the problem), that doesn’t mean that thinking outside the box isn’t the answer. It just illustrates that most people CAN’T.

  69. V. Harding says:

    I think I rather show the 9 dots puzzle with only basic instruction to spot the geniuses right off – this lot is not burden with assumptions -.
    Then I would give further clue to whomever didn’t get it, – that they can indeed go off the box- and finaly give the answer to the helpless/clueless.
    I think your challenge is not needed. Sorry. My two cents.

    • No worries for disagreeing. But you haven’t addressed, let alone refuted, my objections. What you describe sounds like the usual approach, and misses the point that telling people ‘that they can indeed go off the box’ doesn’t typically help people solve the problem.

      And I hope you don’t seriously divide the people you are working with into ‘geniuses’ and ‘helpless/clueless’. That’s pretty well guaranteed to stifle their creativity.

      • Sorry I got here by accident..but I scanned thru again. Like we say in my country, you are ‘trying to find a fifth leg to a cat’…lol.. Seriously, a mile off I see no substance / time to waste in the matter.

        By the way, peoples know better who they are and what they want, or are capable of doing and be ‘Content’ w their stance genius/challenged. People w strong moral characters, who can take an F (Red F ) and live w the consequences and re-study the lesson; be told NO! Untouched by Dr. Spock ideas of reprograming humans; which is destroying our country., and reason why you are talking of ‘stifle their creativity’ also, another person here let some personal experiences ‘out of his box’., That would not had happen to him if he would had focus on the matter at hand NOT at His ‘ feelings being hurt’.
        There is not such thing as Equality of outcome or result is never going to happen.
        I understand many of our new generation can not handle the truth., but you are adults now, come on. I advice u all read C.S.Lewis and John Lock and the likes and help save our country. Just saying.
        Sorry, …hey it says here to Speak your mind? right? Good day, God bless.

  70. I drew curved lines to connect the dots, and therefore used no straight lines.

  71. Marco Ripà says:

    If someone is interested, here is the general solution in a k-dimensions space for an arbitrary large number of dots in each row:

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

  72. You can do it with one line and a normal thickness pen. Roll the paper up, then start a straight line slightly offset. As it turns into a spiral running around the paper it will hit every dot. But seriously, it is about re-modelling the model isn’t it?

  73. The problem us usually the box it’s self!! I was never aware of a box until I was told today that I thought ‘outside the box’. I’ve never been in it!!!

  74. Whenever I was commended for being creative and thinking outside the box, I thought to myself: “But that’s how I normally think. Isn’t this common sense?” So, I guess, I was never in the box to begin with.
    And, yes, I agree with you. The only reason I think the way I think is because I constantly think and try to think that way. Practice brings genius.

  75. I searched “authors thinking out of the box” because I know there MUST be an untapped resource…well, actually many resources, that I utilize to promote my free book called MANAGEMENT DECISION on FableShop.net.

    Near the top of the first page of Google I find your post made way back in 2008 with a page rank of 3…which is nothing to sneeze at.

    Here’s the deal. You say that thinking outside of the box is not a good thing, and yet you sneakily thought outside of the box to attain a front page link to your page to further your own goals.

    What I see here is a masterful case of internet marketing thinking outside of the box. As a matter of fact you took the box, turned it inside out and sit there laffing all the while at your cleverness. I salute you! I wish I hadda thought up this trick my own self! So there!

    Your fan,
    Norm over at FableShop.net doing my own thinking outside of the box on your inside the box page!

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  77. Biff Jones says:

    I look at it differently. Rather than “out of the box” thinkers, I see myself as someone who needs to test limits in orders to define the edges of the box. Most people like the warm fuzzies of being liked by everyone, never challenging the status quo. Some of us feel dead if we are unable to sense the edge. I don’t know why this is because we honestly like people but somehow sensing this edge makes us feel vital. Sometimes walking this edge one discovers different way of thinking about things, not because we are smarter, but because we try. A major drawback is that most people do not like us because challenge is uncomfortable and conflicts with the “in the box” thinkers value system.