Creativity - An Overview/Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box (sometimes erroneously called "thinking out of the box" or "thinking outside the square") is to think differently, unconventionally or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel, creative and smart thinking.

The "nine dots" puzzle. The goal of the puzzle is to link all 9 dots using four straight lines or less, without lifting the pen. One solution appears below.

This is sometimes called a process of lateral thought. The catchphrase, or cliché, has become widely used in business environments, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has spawned a number of advertising slogans. To think outside the box is to look further and try not to think of the obvious things, but try and think beyond that.


A simplified definition for paradigm is a habit of reasoning or a conceptual framework.

A simplified analogy is "the box" in the commonly used phrase "thinking outside the box". What is encompassed by the words "inside the box" becomes analogous with what we know or what we assume.

Conservationist Lawrence Anthony acknowledges and rejects the paradigm analogy. He argues "I have never understood the saying 'To think outside the box.' Why would anyone sit inside of a box and then think outside of it. Rather just get out of the box."[citation needed]

Nine dots puzzleEdit

One of many solutions to the puzzle at the beginning of this article is to go beyond the boundaries to link all dots in 4 straight lines.

The notion of something outside a perceived "box" is related to a traditional topographical puzzle called the nine dots puzzle.[1]

The origins of the phrase "thinking outside the box" are obscure; but it was popularized in part because of a nine-dot puzzle, which John Adair claims to have introduced in 1969.[2]Management consultant Mike Vance has claimed that the use of the nine-dot puzzle in consultancy circles stems from the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle was used in-house.[3]

The puzzle proposed an intellectual challenge—to connect the dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the nine dots, and never lifting the pencil from the paper. The conundrum is easily resolved, but only if you draw the lines outside the confines of the square area defined by the nine dots themselves. The phrase "thinking outside the box" is a restatement of the solution strategy. The puzzle only seems difficult because we imagine a boundary around the edge of the dot array.[4] The heart of the matter is the unspecified barrier which is typically perceived.

Christopher Columbus's Egg Puzzle as it appeared in Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of Puzzles.

The nine dots puzzle is much older than the slogan. It appears in Sam Loyd's 1914 Cyclopedia of Puzzles.[5] In the 1951 compilation The Puzzle-Mine: Puzzles Collected from the Works of the Late Henry Ernest Dudeney, the puzzle is attributed to Dudeney himself.[6] Sam Loyd's original formulation of the puzzle[7] entitled it as "Christopher Columbus's egg puzzle." This was an allusion to the story of Egg of Columbus.

Metaphor of a "box” is realEdit

"The "box" in the phrase "outside the box" is not only a metaphor—it is real, measurable. Speculating beyond its restrictive confines the box can be both:

(a) positive— fostering creative leaps as in generating wild ideas (the conventional use of the term);[8] and
(b) negative— penetrating through to the "bottom of the box." This could result in a frank and insightful re-appraisal of a situation, oneself, the organization, etc.[9]

On the other hand, the process of thinking "inside the box" isn't always a bad thing. It is crucial for accurately parsing and executing a variety of tasks — making decisions, analyzing data, and managing the progress of standard operating procedures, etc.[9]

Hollywood screenwriter Ira Steven Behr appropriated this concept to inform plot and character in the context of a television series. Behr imagined a core character:

He is going to be "thinking outside the box,", you know, and usually when we use that cliché, we think outside the box means a new thought. So we can situate ourselves back in the box, but in a somewhat better position[10]

Behr also speculated about what happens next in a multi-stage design thinking process.


  1. Kihn, Martin. "'Outside the Box': the Inside Story," FastCompany 1995; Random House: "Outside the Box Thinking".
  2. The Art of Creative Thinking: How to Be Innovative and Develop Great Ideas
  3. Biography of Mike Vance at Creative Thinking Association of America.
  4. Daniel Kies, "English Composition 2: Assumptions: Puzzle of the Nine Dots", retr. Jun. 28, 2009.
  5. Sam Loyd, Cyclopedia of Puzzles. (The Lamb Publishing Company, 1914)
  6. J. Travers, The Puzzle-Mine: Puzzles Collected from the Works of the Late Henry Ernest Dudeney. (Thos. Nelson, 1951)
  7. Facsimile from Cyclopedia of Puzzles - Columbus's Egg Puzzle is on right-hand page
  8. Lupick, Travis. "Clone Wars proved a galactic task for production team." The Georgia Straight, August 21, 2008; "... budgetary constraints forced the production team to think outside the box in a positive way.
  9. a b Bandrowski, James F. et al. (2009). Discover Your Inner Strength, p. __.
  10. TCA Tour – You Asked For It: Ira Steven Behr’s opening remarks


Further readingEdit

  • J. L. Adams (1979). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas. New York: W. W. Norton ISBN 9780201100891; ISBN 0201100894 (more solutions to the nine dots problem - with less than 4 lines!)
  • M. Scheerer (1972). Problem-solving. Scientific American, 208(4), 118-128