Is “Thinking Outside The Box” Still A Useful Concept?

think outside the box

As a company that creates puzzles and team building activities, one phrase we love to use is “thinking outside the box”. It’s seen as good way of conceptualizing how to think differently. By encouraging players of our games to think outside the box, we are trying to get them to step outside their normal frames of mind, or their regular comfort zones, in order to look at something from a different perspective.

However, is that worth doing? Or even possible?

A recent interview with Kenneth Cukier, a journalist at the Economist who writes about tech, AI and Big Data, really caught my attention. The topic was Cukier’s assertion that “thinking outside” the box is a flawed concept because we rely on these “boxes” in order to move through the world. In other words, what’s more important is to recognize the box that you’re thinking in and investigate it more deeply.

Because our company deals so much with “thinking” and how to think differently, I was really attracted to the interview and the ideas that were expressed. It made me think a lot about how we express thoughts and ideas, how we view the world, and why any of that is important.

So, in the following blog post I want to talk about Kenneth Cukier’s central argument, what we can take away from it when it comes to thinking and team building, and also some critiques that I have. As we shall see, the approach that you take towards thinking outside the box is in many ways based on how you think about thinking.  

Why thinking outside the box is a flawed concept

Cukier’s critique of thinking outside the box revolves around defining “the box” as a “frame” of thinking. In the same way that a window frame determines our view, in this sense a frame of thinking determines how we see the world and how we think through problems and new developments. 

Frames of thinking are based on many things–our assumptions about the world, our ideals, our values, our culture, our education and knowledge base, etc. In this way we all have our individual frames, in the same way that we all have unique personalities.

Based on this definition, it might not be useful, or even possible to move outside one’s own frame of thinking. Essentially, you can’t give up your frame. What is possible, and beneficial for growth, is to be aware of the frame that you have and to better understand it as you move through life. As Cukier explains, “The magic is in the box.” 

Interacting with others and solving problems

All this is not to say that your frame necessarily limits you from understanding other people, or from  growing your frame to include new information. When you interact with other people, you can understand their way of thinking better when you become aware of your own. According to Cukier this actually makes you better at interacting with other people since you are aware of the limitations of your own frame of thinking, and can therefore better accept the parts of other people’s viewpoints that can help you fill in the gaps.

So you can expand your frame of thinking by coming into contact with other people and experiences, and other frames of thinking. This can be seen as “testing your assumptions”, which is important to do in order to be able to meet new challenges and adapt accordingly. 

When you interact with new people or ideas that you have never encountered before, your frame’s limitations and assumptions are shown, which can produce positive reactions of acceptance or accommodation, or negative reactions of anger and defensiveness. However, by being aware of your frame and its limitations, you can better react to new situations and allow different ideas to fit within your frame. 

To use a very current real world example, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, there were basically two frames of thinking about dealing with pandemic diseases, both based on countries’ historical experiences. These two frames were “mitigation” and “elimination”. The first is based on experiences with the seasonal flu, in which the goal is to simply reduce cases to limit the strain on health systems. The second is based on experiences with other SARS viruses, in which drastic action is taken to stop community transmission of the virus as quickly as possible. 

According to this view, countries that started off with the first frame (generally Europe and North America) tended to be worse at containing the virus initially than countries that already had the second frame in their minds (generally Asian and Pacific countries). Countries that were using the mitigation frame had to incorporate the elimination frame into their policies in order to become more successful at managing the crises.

Even if this seems overly simplified, it is true that much of the story of the pandemic over the past year and a half, both individually and collectively, has been about learning to expand our frames of thinking in response to new information and changing situations. We are still doing this, and you can watch in real time. Recently the consensus is moving back towards mitigation of the pandemic’s effects by limiting deaths, and accommodating the virus as an endemic disease. 

Frames and teamwork 

Despite this really heavy example, it’s easy to see how the notion of frames can be useful on teams. A lot of difficulties in interpersonal relationships often come from miscommunication. But by understanding that everyone has their own frame, their own box that they are thinking from, it can make it easier to take a step back and try to understand that frame and where that person is coming from. 

Instead of dismissing someone’s idea, becoming defensive, or getting angry that someone doesn’t understand your point, you can try to figure out the assumptions that person has, or the experience that has shaped their perspective in order to work through the issue and come to an understanding. 

Having this attitude that we are all shaped by our frames of thinking can be beneficial on teams, and can allow members to accept each other for who they are. It might also be good to expand this concept about frames to a team-wide level. What kind of assumptions, valuations, and past experiences are going into the way your team thinks. How might that frame be enlarged or expanded? How good is it at incorporating the frames of new team members? How do we shape our collective frames?

Wrap-up: Can we think outside the box?

So can we actually think outside the box? While the above shows that Cukier clearly seems to think you can’t, I’m a little more divided on the matter, and I think it’s still worth it to try.

Sure, “thinking outside the box” is a phrase that has been used a million times. Some might view it as glib or even corny. But what it is trying to get at is a spirit of experimentation and striving to find new ideas. 

While it might not be possible to think outside the box all the time, there are times when it is good to immerse yourself in a completely new idea or experience, to test the limits of your thinking, and to see if you can really stretch your mind to come up with something completely different. 

Finally, it is important to remember that sometimes ways of thinking, including language, can be stifling and trap you in certain behaviors. In this sense, it’s useful to think about how you are thinking, and how you can change. Whether you want to call it thinking outside the box or not is up to you.

Invite Japan has a variety of programs, activities and challenges that are geared towards getting your team to expand their frame and think in new ways, all while having fun and building strong relationships. Contact us today for more information! 

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