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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 are making.

2. Write these down on a piece of paper or in a new computer file.

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 why 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?


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For more on thinking outside the box, visit these pages:

Problem Solving Techniques

More Ways to Solve Problems

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