Thinking Outside the Box - How to Do It
The idea of out-of-the-box thinking is to find creative ways
to solve problems and new ways to look at things. You have probably
heard the expression in various forms many times, but how do
you actually think outside of the box? You can start by understanding
what the "box" consist of, and then you'll be more
able to consistently get outside of it.
What is the metaphorical box that everyone talks about? It
is the normal way of looking at things and doing things, and,
most importantly, it is all the assumptions that we normally
make when thinking about a particular problem or subject. So
your best way to start thinking outside the box is to identify
all the assumptions that make up the box, and then challenge
them one-by-one, replacing them with other assumptions or ideas,
in order to come upon new ways to approach the matter at hand.
Of course, this is something that becomes much clearer with an
example, like the one that follows.
Many years ago a particular brand of liquor was faltering,
and the maker couldn't seem to boost its sales. The usual "in
the box" solutions included doing more promotions, lowering
the price, and getting better shelf placement in the stores where
it was sold. These strategies didn't work very well. Finally
someone in the company's marketing department challenged the
assumptions that these "normal" solutions were based
on, including the idea that people are more likely to buy the
product if the price is lower.
He asked the question, "What if we just raised the price?"
The price was raised as an experiment, and sales soon started
to climb. For some products a lower price might increase sales,
but price is also seen as an indicator of value. A higher price
for some types of products makes people think they are of higher
quality. Also, some types of liquor are often bought as gifts.
These customers don't want to buy the most expensive one, but
they also don't want to seem cheap, so they won't buy it if it
doesn't cost enough. You might have felt similarly if you ever
bought a bottle of wine to bring to a party -- you don't want
to get the $30 bottle, but you also don't want to show up with
a $3 bottle.
Imagine what happens to your profit margins when you raise
the price, which increases profit margins significantly, and
the sales go up. That's the power of thinking outside of the
box. Now let's look at some specific steps you can take to start
developing this kind of creative approach to all areas of life.
Techniques for Thinking Outside of the Box
Here's a simple formula for finding new solutions and new
ideas when addressing a particular problem or subject:
1. Identify as many assumptions as possible that you and others
2. Write these down on a piece of paper or in a new computer
3. Challenge each one, looking for ways to prove them wrong
and-or replace them with other assumptions.
It can be difficult to actually identify all the assumptions
being made, because some are so deeply imbedded in our thinking.
For example, if you wanted to design a new motorcycle you might
begin by writing down the obvious things that are often assumed,
like "speed matters," and "it has to run on gas."
These might be good places to start, because, for example, there
might be demand for a new kind of electric motorcycle, and speed
might not be the only thing that riders value about performance.
But you might overlook the assumption that a motorcycle must
have two wheels, and this could be very important, even if the
result (perhaps a three-wheeled electric vehicle that can more
easily accommodate the weight of batteries) is not called a motorcycle.
The point isn't to challenge assumptions because you expect
to prove all of them wrong, but to do so because it can lead
to creative possibilities. What other assumptions are made about
motorcycles? They are for only one or two people at a time. They
don't keep you out of the weather. They need wheels. They need
foot and hand controls. They are more dangerous than cars. The
front wheel is the one that has to turn. You can probably add
to this list, especially if you own a motorcycle (I don't).
You can also get your thinking out of the box by making absurd
assumptions. This can be either a fun or annoying exercise depending
on how open-minded you are. The idea is to start making absurd
assumptions about your subject and then start finding ways to
make sense of them. One way to facilitate this process is to
ask a lot of "what if" questions. It is time for another
example or two.
We will suppose that you own a carpet cleaning business. You
want to brainstorm some new ways to do business, so you ask "What
if my carpet cleaning business was better off with half as many
customers?" That assumption implied by that question seems
absurd, but you decide work with it for a while, and the thoughts
go something like this:
It would be less stressful to have fewer customers.
But losing half the customers means losing half of my income...
or does it?
If each customer was worth two or three times as much as
now I might make more money.
How could that happen?
From which customers do I make the most money?
Commercial jobs with large, easy-to-clean spaces (theaters,
offices, convention halls) generate more money in a day than
cleaning houses, and with fewer headaches.
If I focused on getting those accounts, and stopped soliciting
new house-cleaning accounts... hmm.
That could be a better way to make the same or even a higher
income - not so absurd.
It is perhaps easier to apply these techniques to business
situations (or maybe that's just me -- I also spend a lot of
time writing about ways to make money). But they can be applied
to any area of life. For example, in a piece for my personal
blog I challenged a common assumption about the military by asking
can't soldiers can't their jobs like other employees can.
The assumption is that they must be forced to stay, but there
is less evidence for that than you might think, and there are
other ways to have a stable workforce in the military, even in
times of war.
Where else can we apply these creative kinds of questions?
We might generate some great ideas for creating peace if we seriously
challenge the general idea that war is necessary. We assume that
an economy must grow for people to do well, but is that the truth?
We assume we need to throw people in jail for using plants we
don't approve of. but is there a better way? We assume that we
become part-owner of a country by being born in it, but is that
assumption entirely valid? For that matter we assume we know
what a country is, but do we really? We make assumptions in every
area of life, and challenging those preconceived notions might
lead to some great ideas.
Here's one final thing to try. Literally do your thinking
outside of the box, as in out of the house or office building.
Get out into the streets. Look around. Notice how others are
doing things, and ask yourself how you can apply that to your
own problems. In Ecuador, salesmen get on the bus and put a product
into everyone's hands. They let them hold it while they do a
sales pitch, after which you have to give back what feels like
"your" product or pay for it. It's very effective.
Is there some way you could you use the principle in your own
business or for "selling" your ideas to other people?