Thinking outside the box

Jan 13 2011 by Edward de Bono Print This Article

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

There is also an implication that the 'box' is a bad thing and constricting, as all boxes tend to be. Yet, to be honest, the box is a very good thing indeed. The box contains all the values, attitudes, beliefs, rules and assumptions that allow us to behave in a rational and useful way on any occasion.

Everyone has a set of 'boxes'. One box may relate to a business or a professional life. Another box may relate to a set of relationships, as in a family. Another box may relate to self-esteem and self-awareness.

Without boxes, life would be a random walk. Or we would have to work out every single step rather than rely on routine or the value guidance of a box.

It is the box that determines perception. Sometimes the box gives a ready-made perception. Sometimes the box instructs us to pay attention to some things and not others - and so determines our perception. Sometimes the box provides the formed ingredients which we put together to give the perception.

All this is 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 much of the time. But when there is need for the reverse gear, then no other gear will do. Without a reverse gear you would get blocked in the first blind alley you came to - and parking would be rather difficult.

So most of the time we should 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 out of the box. There are also times when we need to break out of the box but are not conscious enough of that need to convert it into a 'want'.

The intention to 'break out of the box' is essential as the first step. By itself, however, this intention does not get us very far. The intention to be creative is excellent, but very weak in practical terms.

So there is the dilemma. There is a need for some new thinking outside the box. At the same time, there is a belief that you have to be within the box to provide useful solutions.

Put another way, the dilemma might be: you have to be a novice to learn new tricks, but tricks not based on experience have no value.

The solution to the dilemma is surprisingly simple. The outsider works with an insider as a team.

Most things that are done are logically related to something else. That is why they are done. So it is always possible to give sound reasons for why things should be done in a certain way.

Sometimes, if we follow the 'logical trail' back, we come to 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 explain why, logically, things must be done as they are done. The outsider can probe and find the original assumption.

Even when it is logical that something must be done in a certain way, there is always the possibility of another way which is just as logical, but more effective or cheaper. Adequacy should never block the search for something better.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono (1933-2021) was a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.