Thinking Managers

Edward de Bono of uses the metaphor of 'thinking outside the box' to illustrate why both internal and external perspectives are valuable.

Creative thinking: Inside and outside the box

The term 'thinking outside the box’ is in common use and well understood. It is both communicative and visual.

The implication is that the ‘box’ is a bad thing and constricting, as all boxes usually are. However, to be honest, the box can be a very good thing indeed. Inside the box are all the values, attitudes, beliefs, rules and assumptions that allow us to behave in a rational and useful way on any occasion.

Everyone has their own set of ‘boxes’. One box might relate to a business or a professional life. Another box might relate to a set of relationships, such as a family. Another box might relate to self-awareness or self-esteem.

Without boxes, life would like be a random walk. Or we would have to work out each step rather than rely on routine or guidance a box can give.

The box determines perception. At times the box offers a ready-made perception. Sometimes the box can instruct us to pay attention to some things and not others - and so it can determine our perception. Other times the box provides the ingredients that we piece together to form the perception.

This can be very useful and prevents us from floundering around trying to find ways of looking at the problem or situation. The reverse gear in a motor car is not used for much of the time. However, when there is need for the reverse gear, then no other gear will do. If there is no reverse gear you could get blocked in the first blind alley you came to - and parking would be rather tricky.

So for much of the time we would be very comfortable within the ‘box’. While appreciating the high convenience and operating value of the box, there are times when we want to break free from the box. There are also times when we need to break free from the box, but are not conscious enough of that need to convert it into a ‘want’.

The intention to ‘break free from the box’ is a crucial as the first step. By itself, though, this intention does not get us very far. The intention for creativity is excellent, but very weak in practical terms.

So we have a dilemma. We need to think outside the box sometimes. But also, there is a belief that you have to be within the box to provide useful solutions.

In other words, the dilemma might be: you have to be a novice to learn new tricks, but tricks not based on experience have no value.

The dilemma has a surprisingly simple solution. The outsider works in a team with an insider.

A lot of things that are done are logically related to something else. That is the reason why they are done. So it is always possible to give good reasons for why things should be done in a particular way.

Sometimes, if we follow the ‘logical trail’ back, we reach a point where what was done depended on an arbitrary assumption, an arbitrary value, an arbitrary perception or the technology that was available then.

The insider can give a logical explanation as to why things must be done as they are done. The outsider can explore and find the original assumption.

Even in cases where it is logical that something should be done in a certain way, there is always the possibility of another way which is just as logical, but more effective or cheaper. The search for something better should never be blocked by adequacy.

About the author
Edward de Bono is the world's leading authority in the field of creative thinking and the teaching of thinking as a skill.

  Edward de Bono