Innovation: Thinking Outside the Box

We all know the expression “thinking outside the box”, but do we know how to do it? What is the “box” anyway? This article explains what the box is and how to go about thinking in alternative ways to it. There are some simple techniques for coming up with solutions “outside the box” that could prove both helpful and lucrative.

By Steven Gillman

When innovators talk about thinking outside the box, they mean coming up with creative ways to solve problems – new ways to look at things. How do they do it? How can you do it too? We first have to ask what the “box” is. Then we can look at how to get outside of it.

The Box
The “box” is the normal way of doing things and looking at things. It is the assumptions that almost everyone involved is making. The best way to start thinking out of the box, then, is to identify and challenge all the assumptions that make up thinking inside the box.

Some years ago, one of the major drink brands was faltering, and they couldn’t seem to boost their sales. Promotions, lowering the price, getting better shelf placement – these were the “in the box” solutions. Then someone challenged the assumptions by asking, “What if we stopped the promotions and just raised the price?”

The price was raised as an experiment, and sales soon doubled. As it turns out, some types of alcoholic drink are bought quite often as gifts. Buyers don’t want to buy the most expensive one, but they also don’t want to seem cheap, so they won’t buy products that don’t cost enough. Now imagine what happens to your profit margins when you raise the price and double the sales. That’s the power of thinking outside of the box.

Getting Outside the Box
Challenging assumptions is a powerful creative problem-solving technique. The difficult part is to identify the assumptions. If you are designing a new motorcycle, write down assumptions like “speed matters”, “it has to run on petrol” and “it needs two wheels”, not because you expect to prove these wrong, but because challenging these can lead to creative possibilities. Maybe the time has come for an electric three-wheeled motorcycle?

Another way to get to creative solutions is to “assume the absurd.” This is either fun or annoying, depending on how open-minded you can be. All you do is start making absurd assumptions, and then finding ways to make sense of them. The easiest way to do this is by asking, “What if…?”

What if a carpet cleaning business was better off with half as many customers? It seems absurd, but work with it. Hmm…less stressful, perhaps? More profitable if each customer was worth three times as much. Is that possible? Commercial jobs that involve large easy-to-clean spaces (theatres, offices, convention halls) make more money in a day than houses, with fewer headaches too. Focusing on getting those accounts could be the most profitable way to go – so not so absurd!

Another way to more innovative ideas is to literally do your thinking out of the box. Get out of the house or the office. Look around at how others are doing things. On busses in Ecuador, salesmen put a product into everyone’s hands and let them hold it while they do a sales pitch. Then you have to give back “your” product or pay for it. It is very effective. How could you use the same principle in your business?

Steve Gillman has been studying brainpower and related topics for years. For more creative problem-solving techniques, and to subscribe to the Brain Power Newsletter, visit,

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