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Think “Inside” the Box: Empower Your Inner Potential to Get 10x Successful Ideas

We'll explore different thinking styles, & define what it means to “think out of the box” and why it does not always work. As well as steps to think “inside the box.”

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“Be creative while inventing ideas, but be disciplined while implementing them.” (Amit Kalantri)

Whether in books, online articles, talks, podcasts, business, or science… Everyone has already heard the term “think out of the box.” But what does it mean?

“Think out of the box” is a metaphor that means to think and see things from a different angle and perspective. This term, also known as the nine-dot problem, was initially coined by some management consulting firms to solve problems in a different and outstanding way.

In this article, I will discuss which are the different thinking styles to start thinking differently. Moreover, I define what it means to “think out of the box” and why it does not always work. Thus, simple steps to think “inside the box” are described, followed by how to ask the right question to generate breakthrough ideas.

What’s your thinking style?

We have a “natural” and “personal” thinking style that is special and particular about humans. Therefore, being aware of which one is yours would generate a massive impact on your problem-solving situations and innovation generation. These thinking styles are classified as [1]:

  • Synthesist: it refers to individuals who are creative and open-minded to a variety of ideas. These individuals are curious and like to explore and discover new things.
  • Idealist: it refers to individuals who are always focused and working on achieving ambitious (long-term) goals. Once they reach their goal, they tend to set the bar higher for (themselves and others next to them) looking for what’s next.
  • Pragmatists: it refers to individuals who are more logical when approaching a problem. Their tendency is to be focused on short-term goals and are driven by quarterly/annual achievements.
  • Analysts: it refers to individuals who look at facts and data points. They tend to show their own way to proceed, work, and do things. They mostly work on data and big matrics. They like to follow a specific procedure and process when approaching problems to solve.
  • Realist: it refers to individuals who approach problems head-on. They don't fear ambiguity behind any challenge. They are effective, organized, efficient, and doers.  

Once you recognize a personal thinking style, learning to “think differently” should be more accessible, being aware of your strengths and weaknesses. You can think differently by [2]:

  • Strategic thinking: it refers to the ability to deal with uncertainty by making plans for the “what-if” situations while also predicting potential situations to occur.
  • Inquisitive thinking: it refers to a type of thinking based on asking questions to tackle problems from different perspectives.
  • Big-picture thinking: it refers to the ability of thinking by assuming someone else point of view to gain insights and a different perspective on solving a problem.
  • Focused thinking: it refers mostly to the ability to focus and detach from any distraction to solve a problem/achieve something.
  • Risk-oriented thinking: it refers to the ability to take risks and pursue a determined goal.
  • Shared thinking: it refers to the ability to cooperate with others while considering and listening to what people say and think.
  • Reflective thinking: it refers to the ability to look at things without being influenced by emotions. Thus, a clearer and neutral perspective can be applied.

How can we effectively think differently based on these varieties of thinking styles and strategies? Frequently we have heard about the metaphor to think “out of the box” but what is it? How can we adopt it?

How to think differently and “outside the box”

“Think out of the box” is a metaphor that means to think and see things from a different angle and perspective. This term, also known as the nine-dot problem, was originally coined by some management consulting firms aimed at solving issues differently and outstandingly. This type of thinking involves a risk-oriented approach to be successful. This is followed by shared thinking. Indeed, when it’s about innovation, cooperation can be the key because you may need the perspective of others to come up with an outstanding solution. And lastly, learning to adopt reflective thinking would be critical to look at things from a distance and emotional detachment.

Therefore, thinking outside the box means taking a different perspective and path to work (particularly when things are not moving forward, letting us feel stagnant in a situation). In the context of products, customers, or opportunities, to get a different perspective, five approaches are proposed [3]:

  • Naturalism: instead of asking questions, this approach is mainly based on observation of how others communicate, behave, and interact.
  • Participant Observation: this approach combines observation with asking questions (e.g., when interacting with a customer).
  • Interview: this approach is based on a large observation while asking a question (e.g., setting up an event and interviewing the customer).
  • Survey: this approach aims to obtain information by targeting a specific group. Questions of different types are asked to investigate different sectors (e.g., different product features).
  • Archival Research: this approach is based on literature research to spot which study dis(agrees) with your approach, stimulating you to conduct more research on a topic while gathering innovative ideas.

By continuing the example of products and customers, how can we take the perspective of customers? For example, how does a customer interact with a vendor/product manager? A few approaches are suggested:

  • Apply User Personas: it refers to semi-fictional characters in which a vendor and the customer's perspectives are considered, visualized, and compared. Information about the customer can be collected based on surveys, interviews, and observations, thus used to interpret the “user personas” perspective.
  • Understand a Customer Touch Points: it refers to the ability to understand the customer’s journey while assuming their perspective regarding how you sponsor and promote your product (e.g., websites, product quality, ads, etc).
  • Factors that May Influence a Customer: these refer to external actors who may (positively or negatively) influence the customer to buy or not a product, although you are not in control of them.

Lastly, creating an empathy map would generate greater insights to deeply investigate how a customer feels/thinks at each interaction. In conclusion, being aware of different thinking styles allows you to choose the type that is most suitable for you to start thinking differently. Furthermore, by thinking differently we assume different perspectives (through interviews, surveys, and observations), which in turn creates a customer journey map and personas to understand what the customer needs and truly wants. This is followed by understanding how a customer interacts or is influenced by external factors, leading to the creation of a customer empathy map even to perceive what they feel and experience.

Why brainstorming doesn't it always work?

A reason why even solid ideas may fail is that they are generated by two common and “overused” techniques: being forced to think outside the box or being asked to slice old boxes (e.g., same market, financial and research market data) in a different way. Thus, the former challenges people with unstructured and abstract brainstorming (e.g., make a product bigger or smaller, lighter or heavier, expensive or cheaper, or with different functionality and durability, easiness of use, etc.). Ideas might be all great at first, but without clear guidance, they may lead to uncertainty and confusion. By slicing data differently, the latter may not lead to outstanding ideas but just small insights [3].

Most of the time, we also hear that we should ask customers what they think to come up with innovative ideas (e.g., in business and market research). However, although this approach is not wrong (and in line with a market/test fit approach), frequently customers do not know yet whether they potentially need a new product that they did not even imagine. Thus, limiting ideas to something “already known and explored.” Nevertheless, by asking the right question and organizing structured brainstorming sessions, it would be possible to recreate the process of ideation based on clear directions and references [3].

TEDx Talks YouTube Channel 
Practical Wisdom - Interesting Ideas YouTube Channel 

But what’s “inside”?

Having discussed what it means to “think out of the box,” how can we reverse this statement to concentrate on the potential and “think inside the box”?

To think “inside” means to generate innovation within the constraints established by the box, known as “constraint-based innovation.” Based on this approach, constraints are implemented to generate innovation beyond the box. Accordingly, the box is a metaphor for an organization, government, or team. It thus is referred to the environment in which you are operating and that you are interacting. Despite the word “constraints” feeling like limitations, these constraints inside the box can be modified and overcome. A few examples of constraints might be:

  • Strategy/Vision: defines a specific plan to enter a target market.
  • Policies/Procedures: they may vary but are often very constraining.
  • Decision-making Processes: it answers the question, “who makes the decision? And which are the criteria?”
  • Allocation of Resource: it is related to how a government/organization/team allocates resources.

Although inside constraints can be hard to overcome, the seven laws of innovation were proposed to foster and empower “inside” thinking. These are [4]:

  • Leadership: to generate innovation, leaders, are necessary while successfully support an organization in reaching a goal.
  • Innovation Culture: creating a culture inside an organization/team is crucial to generating innovation while encouraging and engaging individuals to develop new ideas.
  • Resources: even though it is not always the case, investing resources in innovative ideas/projects might be the key to successful achievements.
  • Patience: innovation takes time. Likewise generating those ideas from the “inside.”
  • Innovation Framework Process: to generate innovation, an organisation/team needs a framework (that aligns with the culture) to visualize, process, and pursue that idea.
  • Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG): this answers the question: “what’s the massive purpose you want to pursue?” Thus, a timeline and a plan are needed to achieve it.
  • Execution: once an idea is generated from the inside, it needs a plan and a strategy for execution.

Nevertheless, besides “inside” constraints, there might also be “outside” constraints that typically include competitors, investments, partners/suppliers, and government policies/rules. These constraints are mostly out of personal control but are not always as negative as they would sound.

Think inside the box: practice steps

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are good reasons that outside-the-box thinking doesn't work. Thus, even when thinking from the inside, it is possible to be creative even when thinking from the inside. Besides the traditional method of brainstorming upcoming ideas, there is an effective approach to putting this type of thinking into practice.

Everyone has experienced at least one in life to be asked by a friend, a colleague, or a superior to come up with a novel idea or to provide a different outcome than what was already presented. Sometimes, even the most outstanding idea (apparently) does not materialize and translate into what it would have been expected, leading to dissatisfaction and frustration. Therefore, we are being asked to think differently, so being the “outside of the box” thinker to tackle the problem from a different angle. However, this approach may not always work because a “think out of the box” approach already requires clear parameters and references to start with that align with the person or the team. But if you do not have them? Then, you need a box to start this process.

A box shouldn’t be something that constrains and force your ideas to be within certain limits. A box is your starting point, a solid place to begin and further exploit a plan. Thus, clear thinking would help to generate innovative ideas by defining those necessary steps to achieve your mission by relying on the box. Whether the box is small or large does not matter. The size depends on your goal, the aim of the project/task, and related factors. In two steps you will be able to effectively “think inside the box” to boost your innovative ideas:

  1. Start by building the walls of your box: start by asking very simple questions such as “what are my project slides?” “What is the nature of my work?” “What are the right/left limits?” These questions are necessary to clearly define what you want from this project, your expectations, and what you can do.
  2. Afterward, build the top of your box: while building a box around you, now it’s time to think about the top of your box. The top represents the upper limit of your project, meaning the ideal amount of effort and time you intend to invest. For instance, these are represented by deadlines, time limits, and clear points to put thoughts into action. The top of your box has not a fixed height. Everything depends on the specific project/task and you can decide when it is “good enough” to be realistic and achievable.

In conclusion, this simple but effective method gives you the key to begin setting up your project by thinking inside the box; a safe place to begin. Managers and professionals are pretty good at thinking inside the box. They deal with constraints effectively by exploring alternatives and different combinations, although the confines of the box limit them. Therefore, only by asking the right question, the right constraints can be set, allowing great ideas to come up, even in this confined space.

Start by asking the right question

How did the most known companies (e.g., Google, Amazon, eBay) succeed? Probably, they asked themselves the right question with the consequence of generating groundbreaking ideas and reshaping their market through new services and products. Although some questions may be specific to that company and business, other questions are universally applicable. For instance “What is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?” Likewise, “Who does not use my product for one particular reason?” can be a potential question to tackle a subset of possibilities that differ markedly from those explored before. Therefore, anytime you come up with an innovative idea (apparently) try to reverse that idea from the way you see it by asking yourself “What question would have caused me to see this opportunity first?”

If you find it difficult to search for the question you should begin with, you can use a simple logic tree with a high-level question that breaks down into different but defined inquiries. This would allow us to consider novel possibilities from different perspectives [3].

To read more about how to think inside the box for breakthrough ideas read here.

John Spencer YouTube Channel 
TEDx Talks YouTube Channel 
TEDx Talks YouTube Channel 

A take-home message

In this article, I discussed the difference between “out of the box” and “inside the box” thinking. The former is based on risk-oriented, shared, and reflective thinking. The latter relies on internal constraints to generate innovative ideas beyond the box.

Peter Diamandis believes that “to be really innovative, you need to start thinking in a really small box.” When a team is set with hyper-constraints and an MTP, it incentivizes them to try new ways of attacking the problem. You can read more about it on his blog here.

Contrary to popular beliefs, coming up with innovative ideas does not always imply embracing an “outside” perspective, rather taking an “inside” perspective means constraining the problem but not the ways to solve it. Indeed, although this type of thinking seems to limit the availability of resources, it does not limit how to utilize them to generate innovative solutions. However, by combining both outside and inside thinking, a complete overview of possibilities can be visualized. Furthermore, through structured brainstorming based on asking the right question, a problem statement can be analyzed to generate breakthrough ideas, within and beyond the box.

“Rebels revel in rewriting reality's restrictions.” (Ryan Lilly)

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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".