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Get Out of the Box to Think Out of the Box

How many times have you heard the phrase, “Think outside the box?” Usually, when this phrase is used it is to encourage someone to create a solution or solve a problem by thinking differently. In this article, I want to show that in order for you to think outside the box, you are going to have to get out of the box. This article is designed to give you some quick and easy, but useful techniques for getting out of the box, so you can think out of the box. The examples set forth have been derived from writings, new product development and various collaboration techniques currently in use today. Finally, the concepts given here are reinforced with some real case study examples. It is my aim to provide you with a new understanding of what the box is, and tools to help you to climb out of it. I will do this by introducing not theoretical, but do-able techniques that help you free yourself and others from the box of conventional thinking, into the world of new ways and ideas that are applicable in today’s global sector. 

What is the Box?

The “Box” is the accumulation of your past experiences – good, bad or neutral. Since the box represents all that you’ve learned and experienced, it is nearly impossible to get outside of it without help. Where do new thoughts come from? They come from different “seeds.” They may come through what you hear or see. The box is also a collection of experiences, a set of lessons learned from our past successes and failures. The box can provide comfort derived from knowing what we know. The box can provide safety from not knowing what we don’t know. Conventional wisdom is locked up in the box, nice and securely. We want it protected like a package ready to be shipped. We may be in the box when we think all good ideas have already been surfaced. Rather, we must realize that we may not have even scratched the surface. 

Getting out of “the box” of your own experiences means collecting ideas from other people’s experiences. That can be done by communicating with all the people in your department. New ideas come from reading, attending seminars or networking. Once you surround yourself with opinions other than your own, new ideas will begin to emerge. At that time, be prepared when a new idea surfaces unexpectedly. No matter how great the temptation, do not ignore it, regardless how simple or extravagant it may seem. On the contrary, record it, save it, document it and refer to it to help you to get out of the box. Do not be swayed by how simple it is. Sometimes the simplest solution may often yield incredible results. . Additionally, an extravagant idea may require resources that you may not have. Again, do not dismiss it. It may be the change that is needed in your organization.

Connecting the Dots

You may have seen this little exercise before. If you have, then it will not be a challenge for you. However, if you have not, try doing it. The goal is to link all 9 dots using only four straight lines or less, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once. See if you can do it. I’ll give you the answer later in the presentation. 


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To help us to get out of the box, we want to understand the concept of a paradigm and paradigm shift. A paradigm is a set of practices that define the way we do things at a point in time. The World English Dictionary defines a paradigm shift as a radical change in underlying beliefs or theory . It is a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind. So a paradigm shift allows one to see things from a different perspective and generate new ideas. As an example, a paradigm shift occurred when Apple came out with the iPhone. Who would have thought that the standard for a mobile phone would shift from having a physical key pad, to an electronic touch screen? The concept of having a touch -sensitive screen change the way people interface with these small devices and also is now having an impact on how we interface with computers of all sizes and shapes.

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You can use this table or one of a similar format to help you innovate. You can use it to reinvent a product or service or create a new product or service. I would encourage you to try this out and record the outcome. You may find that you can improve as you use this more often.

Using the bland template below, try getting out of the box by addressing these variables. Start by asking whether these attributes are of the same value? How can they be assessed? Will different stakeholders value these differently? How can these be related to tasks and activities? Prioritization – value, resources, risk…

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Don’t reinvent the wheel? Maybe the old can be improved upon by dispensing of antiquated techniques and employing techniques applicable to current trends. 

Did you know that there were earlier versions of the movies the Parent Trap, You’ve Got Mail, and Titanic? Modern technology greatly helped to enhance the new production of old films. In fact, Titanic grossed over $600 million dollars in the U.S. alone. The producers did a pretty good job of “reinventing the wheel.” What other new movies were made from movies that were recorded years ago? 

Here is my next “Out of the Box” Thinking technique. I draw this idea from the example of how a person was framed by taking samples of headlines from other papers. This can be used in a project setting by bringing techniques from many projects to bear on one project. The basic idea is that we can combine headline topics to create a new idea or concept. This new idea is derived from the major components of the headlines, which will give an entire new picture. 

What about this technique. Try using analogies and metaphors to help you get out of the box. Perhaps metaphor associations: “How is our ordering system like a traffic jam?” We all know the concept while shopping of having a physical cart to collect all the items we are buying. Using analogies, the idea was used for online shopping and ordering, where a virtual cart is used to store the items being purchased in an electronic format. 

Function follows form or does it: Getting to high places, climbing the ladder – literally, climbing the ladder – figuratively. The physical makeup of a giraffe allows them to reach items that are in high places, beyond the reach of an average person. For humans to reach higher places, they can physically use a latter to climb to the height they require. In an organization, we often have people wanting to move up in rank in status in the organization. When this happens, we called this climbing the corporate ladder, which is a figure of speech and not a ladder at all.

Getting Others Involved

It’s important to get others involved. John Maxwell, in his book called Thinking for a Change, uses the illustration that you can have one idea, but when you engage someone else you will get a few more ideas, and if you engage a group of people you can get several ideas. The synergy of the group will cause that one great idea emerge. 

There are many ways to gain positive input from other people. Great ideas, as we can see, come from engaging others. Hence, the term “group ideation” involves different ways of working with others. We will look at three ways to interact with a group: Mind Mapping, Brainstorming, and The Delphi Technique. 

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping is a technique used to generate ideas based on word associations, or more specifically idea associations. This technique is done often on an individual basis, and then each individual brings it to the group for discussion. For example, you may have a task to add an exercise component to your organization. 

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You start off with a blank sheet of paper. In the middle of the sheet, write the word “exercise.” Then, as you think of words that associate with “exercise” and, next to it, write those words down whether on the left, right, above or below so that each word has another word next to it. One word will lead to another word or idea which leads to other ideas. Those ideas branch into more unique ideas and it begins to look like a tree in which new branches grow out of existing branches. 

Think of a situation in which Mind Mapping can be used to generate new ideas. You may want to use a tool like Visio, Smart Draw, or some other software that will provide Mind Mapping capabilities. 


Brainstorming is a common technique that has been used by many industries to engage others in creative problem solving and generating new solutions. Here are the basic steps for brainstorming. Have the right people at the session. Who are the “right” people? The right people are the people who have the information and can contribute to the ideas in the session. Have a clear objective or problem statement. It is important not to evaluate ideas during this session. Just hear and record them, either manually or electronically. Have a recorder. Following this initial session, combine like ideas. Elevate ideas to better ideas. Finally, retain the best of the best. 

A pitfall of brainstorming to avoid is suppression due to intimidation. Here is an example: A group at NASA called an offsite brainstorming session. The task for the group was to evaluate the risk of developing a rocket. One participant stated a concern about the possibility of having the rocket fall to the floor in the midst of development, thereby damaging the rocket. The brainstorming facilitator dismissed the idea, arguing that it has never happened in the history of NASA. Thus, it was an incident that will never happen. Guess what happened when they built the rocket? So, one good idea that turned out to be a real issue was suppressed due to intimidation.

Another version of brainstorming is what some call reverse thinking. This creative technique is sometimes called anti-brainstorming. If there is a dearth of ideas to solve your problems, apply the brainstorming technique on how you can make it worse. Sounds weird, but it works. Imagine what you need to do to make the situation as bad as possible, and write the resulting ideas on a flip-chart or on post-it notes. Then see if you can translate any of these ideas into its opposite, i.e., improve the situation. This is often a lot of fun and helps reduce tension arising from thinking about the problem. 

This is an Anti-Brainstorming example. We asked the students to write down all the barriers that they can think of to communicating with their project team. Then we asked them to come up with ways to overcome those barriers. They came up with some very creative ideas and solved a problem that they did not think they could solve. 

Case Study #1: Reducing the Weight – (Brainstorming Example) 

A project team was asked to reduce the weight of a rocket by 1500 pounds. They were able to come up with ways to reduce the weight, but they were stalled at having to reduce it by another 800 pounds. They engaged others in looking for a solution. They talked to one of the workers who suggested that they not paint the rocket. It didn’t sound very promising. It wasn’t a great idea from what they thought. But, after they evaluated the idea, they realized that the 200 gallons of paint that it took to paint the rocket weighed 800 pounds. Their problem was solved. So, don’t limit where your ideas come from. Get out of the box. Talk to those who do the work.

The Delphi Technique

The Delphi Technique was originally developed by the RAND Corporation in 1969 (Gray, 2008). The technique is applied by collecting and documenting the opinion and ideas of experts. The results are shared with each expert anonymously and allows the participants to change their original view or opinion based on their review of the other experts submission. The number of reviews will repeat several times until a consensus is reached. The idea here is that the consensus idea will be the best idea. It is a proven technique that helps generate new ideas and gain consensus from a group of experts. It avoids bias due to knowing other participants, because all responses are anonymous. By sharing all responses with others anonymously, the experts can build on the ideas of others. 

It is certain that group dynamics add to the value of an organization. In this next example, you will see how group dynamics improve quality and saved time and money for several automotive manufacturing plants. 

Case Study #2

In the early 80’s while working with a large automotive company in Detroit, I was part of a group of systems analysts asked to help improve the quality of manufacturing transmission and chassis parts. The problem was solved, not by applying strict computer processes, but by building relationships with everyone in the manufacturing facility. The relationships built through engaging others helped us to better understand the problems. We worked closer with the plant personnel, and engaged everyone from the person on the assembly line to the plant manager. As a team, we saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, and improved the quality of the manufacturing parts in roughly six plants in the U.S. The person who spearheaded this style of engaging others later became the Chief Information Officer for another large automotive company where he managed computer technologies throughout the world. 

You have waited long enough! Here is the solution to the Nine Dot Puzzle that we gave you earlier in this presentation. Some of the lines drawn had to go outside the barriers of the dots in order to achieve the desired result. That is okay, as long as the pen did not leave the paper to achieve the goal. The paper represents the rules and regulations of your organization. The dots represent the box. While your organization has rules, you can still stay within the perimeters of your organization while going outside the box to achieve an objective. 

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I want to leave you with these take-aways: It is time for you to get out of the box. This will require you to get new experiences, new connections, new perspectives, and new associations. 

Here’s something I want you to remember about generating ideas. Read this quote from Louis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” You have to have an aim, a goal, a direction and a dream to get you there. In thinking outside of the box, the road may not exist and the “there” may not exist. Thinking outside the box, will help you to design the road and to create a vision for the “new idea”. An interesting concept in Business Analysis and Software Design is to create a vision document. The vision document is creating a picture of the model of your new idea. These things come from ideas. There is the final goal and the right road to get you there. Be very specific in developing your map that leads you to your desired objective, outcome and product and service that add value.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.


  • Clifford Gray and Erik Larson, Project Management – The managerial process, 4th Edition, 2008
  • Ed Lively, “Idea Generation”, International Institute for Learning Webinar, 2011

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