• David Strittmatter

How to actually solve your problems by thinking outside the box

Big ideas come from forward thinking people who challenge the norm

Summary:

  • We've already generated a large pool of proper solutions, but just because they work, they're not optimal

  • By changing our perspective, leaving the realm of conventional thinking, we can form ideas and solve problems in a way superior to what's known

  • Telling yourself to think outside the box has no or even an adverse effect on your creativity


Practical advice:

  • First, you need to identify the box: What are the implicit assumptions limiting your ideation and problem-solving

  • Second, use brainstorming to find creative solutions

  • Third, bounce your ideas off your friends, family, and colleagues


Dear friend,


Maybe during a class, maybe during a meeting, you surely have heard of the phrase "thinking outside of the box". This overused expression is attributed to innovators and creatives who find solutions to problems in an unconventional way.


Plenty of studies show that creative people are happier and more successful in their endeavors. A good reason why I've been working on becoming more creative for years. I read books, watched videos, consumed web articles, and tried out several things. Today, I strongly believe that creativity is a skill anyone can enhance since my "creativity muscle" is stronger than ever before.


For instance, since I'm still in my probationary period, I can't easily take some days off and go on vacation. So, I needed to think about alternatives in order to go abroad and enjoy some days on the beach after the victory over the pandemic. A rather unconventional idea, which came to my mind, was to move abroad and work remotely from there for a certain time.


Too often, when we're faced with a problem, we are limited by implicit assumptions, such as in this case that you can only travel when you can take some days off. For instance, by identifying these implicit assumptions - i.e. making the box visible - we enable ourselves to think more broadly - i.e. outside of the box - and hence find better solutions to our problems.


In today's article, I will write about the benefits of thinking more often outside of the box and provide you with the tools and concepts that greatly help me to become more creative.


The benefits of unconventional thinking


Every single day, we face multiple problems. For most of these problems - e.g. what do I eat for lunch? - we've already generated a large pool of proper solutions. However, from time to time, we are faced with issues for which we don't have a proper answer yet.


There're many ways how we can obtain a solution for these problems: Ask a friend, search on the internet, trial and error, ... Most often, these solutions are pretty straightforward, not far from what's common and known, and they work decently.


Just because something works, though, it's not optimal. Apple is a great example for that: They weren't the first who produced a smartphone, wireless in-ear headphones, or a portable music player, but they were the first who developed products that not only worked but were optimal for their use-case, leading to their superior market position.


Unconventional thinking - thinking out of the box - enables us to find better solutions. By changing our perspective, leaving the realm of conventional thinking, we can form ideas and solve problems in a way superior to what is known.


Expanding your box


Unfortunately, I used to think that I just need to tell myself that I need to think outside of the box and suddenly great ideas are generated. But no surprise, that's completely wrong. Studies show that when a team is encouraged to think outside the box, the creativity levels drop compared to control groups.


There's this well-known Nine-Dot Problem: The task is to connect 9 points arranged in a square with a pencil by four or fewer straight lines without setting the pencil down. Most people take a long time until they find a solution because they assume they cannot leave the square formed by the 9 dots even though nobody ever stated that there're boundaries. The solution lies in leaving this implicitly assumed square (→ box). Here you can see a picture of a solution:





In contrast to telling people to think outside the box, a non-verbal cue, such as drawing a square outside the 9 dots, allows people to solve the 9-dot problem better than average. By helping people to discover their implicit assumptions - their box - they can more easily leave the realm of conventional thinking. Hence, the better approach is to tell oneself to expand one's own box since expanding implies to first identify the limits and only then push them wider.


How to become more creative


In order to think more unconventionally and find creative solutions, there're various approaches and tools. In the following, I will introduce to you those that help me most in my daily life.


First, you need to identify the box: What are the implicit assumptions limiting your ideation and problem-solving? Can you go abroad only when you don't have to work? Do you have to stay within the square of the 9 dots? A few more examples:

  • Netflix/Spotify: Media (films, music, etc) must either be purchased or physically borrowed

  • Airbnb: Nobody would ever let a stranger sleep on their coach or live in their home

  • YouTube: Only professionals and media companies can produce videos

Second, I love brainstorming to find creative solutions to my problems. In the middle of a blank paper, you write down the problem. Then, everything that comes to your mind you have to write down. It's crucial A) to write everything down and B) not to judge your ideas. Brainstorming is about idea generation, the idea selection comes after your brainstorming session.


Third, I use techniques, such as the Pareto Principle or the 10x Rule, to force myself to leave the realm of conventional ideas. For instance, the 10x Rule implies that you think 10x bigger than you actually thought:

  • You want to learn a new language? → What'd you need to do differently if you wanted to learn 10 languages?

  • You want to go on vacation and stay a few days in another country? → What'd you do differently if you wanted to visit 10 countries and stay a few weeks?

  • You want to prepare for your exams in 5 weeks? → What'd you do differently if you had only 5 days?

Fourth, bounce your ideas off your friends, family, and colleagues. Generating great solutions isn't what we see in movies - a eureka or aha moment - but rather a social and collaborative process.

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