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We all too readily associate thinking ‘outside the box’ with creativity & innovation. ‘Come on guys, we need outside-the-box ideas!’ It’s a phrase that irks a lot of people: only bullsh*t ideas come from outside-the-box ideas…

Is outside-the-box thinking just a vacuous term or is there an actual box that has something to do with creativity?

The answer is found in Germany, before World War I.

The origin of the term ‘outside the box’

The expression “thinking outside the box” comes from a puzzle that Gestalt psychologists used to explore the “moment of insight”: the nine-dot puzzle.

The nine-dot puzzle.

The nine-dot puzzle starts off with a matrix made up of 3-by-3 dots:

The puzzle works as follows:

  • Connect all nine dots,
  • by drawing four straight lines through the center of the dots,
  • without taking your pen off the paper.

Gestalt psychology

Before I give a hint, let’s learn a bit more about Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology is a movement in psychology that originated around 1910 in Germany. A Wiki search will provide you with the basic tenets of this movement. For creativity and innovation, the following ideas of this school of thought are important:

Gestalt psychology deals with how we ‘shape’ the things we perceive. According to Gestalt psychologists, we automatically make incomplete structures complete in our own minds. This means, for example, that we see a square where there is a matrix of 3×3 dots on paper. We then fill in the gaps between the dots ourselves.

Then we do something even more crazy.

We unconsciously assume that we should not move our pen outside this imaginary square. We then turn our assumption into a criteria: ‘watch out, if you go outside the line, you’ve failed’. But then again, there isn’t really a square there….

In this particular puzzle, you literally have to move your pen outside the imaginary square. You literally have to go ‘outside the box’ (that’s the hint, the solution is at the bottom of the column).

The confusion

As this puzzle requires you to do is to move your pen both literally and figuratively outside ‘the square’, there has been some confusion about the term. People often explain outside-the-box thinking as: ‘let go of the brakes, criteria doesn’t count anymore!’ That’s not quite true. This is the literal interpretation of ‘the square’.

With that, you are basically saying: there is a square AND the square is the boundary of the problem.

Gestalt psychology is about observation and perception. Thinking outside the box means questioning your own assumptions: it doesn’t say anywhere that you can’t move your pen outside the matrix, you filled that in yourself!

This form of psychology is not popular among psychologists, but it is amongst creative people and what the Dutch call ‘Omdenkers’ (‘flip-thinkers‘ – the whole idea of Omdenken is based on this theory). Yet the psychologists do have a point. The problem is that we are unable to think outside the box.

Are we unable to think outside the box?

According to Gestalt psychology, when solving such a problem as the nine-dot puzzle, you go through three steps:

1:  You end up in a so-called impasse. It is a period of no progress. Perhaps this is the time when you realize you have a problem that you cannot solve with the methods that you have been using.

2: You need to ‘restructure’ the situation. You probably know the expression ‘look at the something in another way.’ That is what restructuring entails. Remember, Gestalt theory is about how you perceive ‘things’ not about how things actually are. You have to change your perception.

3: When you have restructured the situation, the solution will suddenly ‘come to you’. This is the moment of insight. That familiar Eureka feeling, the Aha! moment, you know what I mean. Step two and step three happen almost at the same time.

To sum up, Gestalt psychologists say that restructuring leads directly to ‘seeing the solution’. But, in 1981 Alba and Weisberg discovered that the relationship between step two and step three is not that direct.

Restructuring does not necessarily lead to insight

In their experiment with the nine-dot puzzle, they also told some of the participants at the beginning of the experiment that they had to trace their pen outside the imaginary square in order to solve the puzzle. Alba and Weisberg hypothesized that the hint would prompt restructuring and so these participants would then solve the problem. That last would be the case, given that step 2 and step 3 happen almost at the same time.

But the hint failed to work. Although most participants drew lines outside the imaginary square, only a quarter managed to solve the problem.

We simply can’t do it. However, we should not dismiss outside-the-box thinking out of hand for two reasons.

Type of problem

Gestalt psychologists used what they refer to as ‘insight problems for their research. These problems have three characteristics.

  1. The problem needs restructuring.
  2. All of the variables are known. 
  3. The problem has one solution.

We are referring to well-defined problems here. But in the context of creativity and innovation, how often do we actually have to deal with these kinds of problems? Never.

The complex problems we work with tend to be poorly defined. As in, you do not know all the variables, the context is constantly changing, there are multiple solutions to the problem. In fact, there are no solutions at all to our major problems, only intermediate solutions (in English, the difference between solve and resolve).

Alba and Weisberg (1981) came to the conclusion that restructuring well-defined problems does not directly lead to insight. Although I am not sure if researchers have done experiments with restructuring complex problems.

As far as I know, that restructuring does lead to insight in complex problems has not been scientifically researched. I would even dare to say that restructuring is a core activity for creativity within the context of innovation!

Back to the box

The box in itself does not represent the limits of the problem. The box represents the limits of our thinking. To get out of our boxes, we need to separate observation from interpretation. This is difficult. Thankfully, there are plenty of techniques that can help with that. In my next column, I will break some of them down.

For now, when someone urges you to think outside the box, ask them what that box looks like to them. That will no doubt turn out to be a great conversation.


About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, JP Kroeger, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.