Thinking outside the box

November 10, 2015 at 12:48 pm Leave a comment

headshot of suzanne allenHave you ever used an expression or an idiom and been asked to explain it? You know, expressions like: “push the envelope,” “stay ahead of the pack,” “corner a market,” “raises the bar” or “the elephant in the room?”

To a person whose first language isn’t English, these can be truly baffling, but so is the Spanish expression, “ser pan comido,” which means “to be bread eaten” or what I would translate idiomatically to be “a piece of cake.”

In English, I might say, “as good as gold” but the Italians would say “buono come il pane,” which means “as good as bread.”

How, you ask, did I get on this path of idioms? It started with a 12-year-old, a Blu-Ray remote and a joke. Yes, the 12-year-old was showing me how the Blu-Ray was supposed to work and he told me a joke, which was, “You know even if you ‘push the envelope,’ you are still ‘stationery.’” Take a minute…

Idioms are interesting in every language, but the one that’s always been the hardest for me to grasp (and explain) is this one: “think outside the box.” And I hear it a lot, at least once a day. And frankly, idiomatically speaking, it’s “rubbing me the wrong way.”

Wikipedia says it means to “Think creatively, unimpeded by orthodox or conventional constraints.” But at the “end of the day,” one must get back into the proverbial box to try and act on the thinking that was done in an unorthodox or unconventional way.

So where did this idiom really come from and why is it such a hackneyed phrase?

Somewhere back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, folks in the U.S. aviation industry used the term “outside the box” in this context: “We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.” (Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 1975)

The box seemed to signify rigidity, constraints and linear thinking. Yet an even earlier example from the 1940s in an Iowan newspaper uses the phrase, “pushing out in the blue.” Perhaps this is where another idiom, “blue sky thinking,” arose.

I digress. Back to the story. English psychologist and inventor Edward DeBono is generally given credit for coining the phrase “outside the box thinking” in 1967. He sometimes used the term “lateral thinking” and “outside the box thinking” interchangeably, yet he encouraged people to look for solutions from outside their usual thinking patterns and he used a 1914 puzzle as his metaphor. Does this look familiar?

9 dots puzzleIt’s included in the 1914 bestseller Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers), and this famous puzzle, known as the Nine Eggs Puzzle, was posed like this:

“Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes.”

columbus egg puzzleThis puzzle has become the hallmark of “outside the box” thinking and was popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by a management consultant named Mike Vance, who helped create the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle and the “outside the box” thinking were de rigeur.

During the same time, another psychologist named J. P. Guilford was one of the first academic researchers to conduct a study of creativity. He, too, used the nine-dot puzzle and he challenged his subjects to connect all nine dots with four straight lines without lifting their pencils from the page.

From the business and the academic worlds, I wonder how many times, and in how many workshops, have you been asked the same question that Sam Loyd asked in 1914?

But before we throw the idiom and the theory behind it away, let’s not forget Charles H. Duell, who was the director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, who in 1899 said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Was he wrong? Should he have thought “outside his box?”

However you want to view this box, it really is a perspective, a set of limits that may or may not be self-imposed. But it is a box about context and opinions and creativity. And that’s something we all must attend to, no matter what our business or purpose is.

carboard boxBoxes are how we frame our work and it’s really hard to work without a frame or a paradigm. In fact, it’s hard to think outside boxes.

But lucky for us, we get to choose our boxes, we can change our boxes and we can look at boxes from other perspectives and ask others to look at ours. We can ask people from another department or company or from Spain or Italy to jump in our box and see what they think or say.

But I do wish we could find another idiom to use, I’m so tired of “out of the box thinking” – to which the Italians might say—idiomatically—“In bocca al lupo!” translated as “into the mouth of the wolf!” and meaning “Good Luck!”

suzanne signed in blue ink

Suzanne T. Allen, Ph.D.


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