The origin of thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box is a cliché or catchphrase used to refer to looking at a problem from a new perspective without preconceptions, sometimes called a process of lateral thought. The catchphrase has become widely used in business environments, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has spawned a number of advertising slogans. “Out-of-the-box-y-ness” has also caught on recently, typically used to describe creative, wacky, smart ideas.

“Think outside of the box” has its origins in a classic brainteaser. The puzzle asks the participant to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines without lifting the pen off the paper. It turns out that this is impossible, unless the victim uses the space beyond the boundaries of the dots and thinks outside of the box. The point is supposed to be that by erroneously assuming that constraints and boundaries are part of a problem, we limit our thinking and prevent ourselves from finding solutions. It’s a charming, almost sweet, point, and I’ll give you a moment to savor it before I tear it to shreds.

The Art of Project Management