Hearing the sentence "thinking outside the box" makes us assume that the idea that must be found should be groundbreaking. Further, that only a few individuals can have the correct mindset to provide a satisfactory answer.
In the end, some creative geniuses used this sentence extensively, and their work changes the world. This might be why we associated the expression with industry-shifting products or disruptive solutions.
Let's clear something. As for most things in life, you don't have to take this expression too seriously.
What's the Box
It's easy to overestimate the size or the implication of it. The box isn't shared by most individuals, and that only a selected few were able to escape. Everybody lives inside his/her small box that's shaped by our experiences, character, and environment, … Everything we experienced in life will define our box. On top of that, we can add our relationships, colleagues, or the current working environment as a factor of influence.
The more significant the box, the harder "escaping" it will be.
What's not the box?
As said before, the box is something very personal. It isn't shared with other people since we all live inside our own. It is not a state like people might imply. You are not either in or out of your box. It's possible that someone can easily find innovative ideas at his/her workplace but struggle to adapt when something unplanned occurs.
Our box isn't preventing us from finding groundbreaking ideas. Instead, it limits our ability to see problems or solutions to those problems.
What form does it take?
Since there are infinite boxes, it's impossible to define a rule of thumb that can be used to describe the box. What's possible is to reflect on our experience to find times where something was underwhelming, not brave enough, or too limited. Let me present when it happened to me.
Lack of Bravery
Last year, in 2020, if finished my master's degree. I was able to work part-time during the two years of my degree. I had the chance to work as a software developer in an innovation team of Swiss insurance. The experience was terrific but finished with a sour taste (I might be a bit dramatic). Since I had to write a thesis, I decided to submit a work that would be useful to my team. After some discussion, we defined some specifications, and I went to work.
Everything went pretty smoothly, my colleagues were very supportive, and I delivered excellent work. I was happy with what I did and went to the defense quite confident. As for the project, everything went lovely. I answered questions, but I got some remarks that made me realize that my work lacked bravery.
I was too focused on the scholar and corporate dimension of the work that I didn't realize that it impacted the recommendation I made in the conclusion of my work. I often think of that moment when I realized that something prevented me from finding the best solution or having the courage to discuss some bold propositions. I was pretty disappointed at the time but got a great life lesson out of it.
In that case, the box limited my ability to find the solution that would have transformed my work from good to great. I tried to please both my team and the school but ended up being the one displeased. This learning experience made me understand that taking some risks and going the extra mile is often appreciated and that limiting our ideas results in the loss of innovation.
Create a solution that only pleases its creator(s)
We had a lot of group projects during my studies. This was great since it taught us a lot about collaboration and project management. However, most of the projects were only school projects, meaning no customer or at least no real customer.
During the last year, we had two projects with a client. Let's say it didn't go as smoothly as we would have hoped. I remember one project, in particular, was one of our professors needed an application that allowed colleagues and classmates to give feedback to other people. We rushed through the development and created an application that pleased us, not the client. Obviously, our professor was not thrilled by our work, and it ended up scraped in a corner.
There might be many factors that caused us to rush the development or focus on our grade instead of customer satisfaction. Our lack of experience being one. However, we all knew the importance of keeping the client in the loop to ensure that the solution is the right one. Sadly, I wasn't able to take a step back and reconsider some aspects of the application. This resulted in some tension in our group and with our professor. Besides, at the time, I was too proud to admit my responsibilities in the issues and brushed some feedback I got.
Having an Aha Moment
I currently work in an agency, and we internally develop some services. One of them was developed in a hackathon way during a weekend. After some time, we had trouble finding new customers or creating traction on some parts of the website. To mitigate some issues, we organized brainstorming with people outside the company to get some external ideas. They weren't customers but provided a new view of the project. I remember having an aha moment during our discussion. Someone simply commented about a part of the implementation, and it unlocked something in my mind. It was so obvious, yet I wasn't able to think of this. The brainstorming ended up being a pleasant experience for us, and we knew where to steer some parts of the project.
This situation might seem a bit similar to the one described above. The team had a vision problem. In the first case, we didn't include the customer and focused on our own experience instead. We lost the project's direction in the latter and needed a little nudge from an external source. Nobody in the team was able to see an issue that might have impacted our customers.
What could be done?
In my opinion, "thinking outside the box" is a way to say, "leave your ego on the side". It's easy to fall back to a default behavior or to find the solution that seems the easiest. Leaving on the side the nasty impacting factor is critical. This won't ensure success, but it will help discuss the real issue and find adapted solutions.
This is easier said than done since we all have our beliefs, and overcoming them is hard. But, as said at the beginning of this article, we all have multiple boxes impacting us. Unfortunately, there isn't a unique way to escape them, but we can find a way to mitigate their effects on our lives.
Being able to determine our limits is essential. We all have built our own boundaries and knowing them helps. Everybody has a default behavior when confronting a situation or a thinking process that impedes the discussion. Doing some introspection work or listening to the comments of others is excellent since it can be done alone or rather quickly. Working on the elements that emerged from this work is, on the other hand, more taxing.
Having the courage to take a step back when a situation doesn't seem right is also essential. "Why our solution doesn't have the expected traction?" "How would I like to see this information if I was a customer?" are questions that can help start the process. As the point described before, it's easy since it can be done alone. However, debating some aspects of a project alone can provide innovative ideas and help someone's work.
Even better, integrate external perspective into the discussion. This person could act as a moderator if he/she isn't involved in the project or, even better, could be a customer or someone impacted by the issue. In both cases, having an external view will always benefit the stakeholders. For example, when discussing a life issue, the outer person might ask the question that everybody thinks but none dares to ask.
There are no easy solutions when it comes to breaking down the invisible boundaries we impose on ourselves. Everybody and every situation are different. A myriad of factors is to consider. Hopefully, some tricks can help us determine the limitation of our minds, and I presented some of them. The list isn't exhaustive by any means. But, it's a modest way to start some introspective work.