Stop Thinking “Outside the Box”

We are in a creative field and therefore, we are often asked to “think outside the box”. We constantly hear people say to us, “I’m an out of the box thinker.” Or the best, “we need to get out of the box thinking on this one.”

Being creative, by its definition, is the antithesis of cliche. So when phrases like the one above become cliche, they naturally are no longer serving the right purpose. Someone in a role where they are expected to be creative, deliver creative ideas and think in creative ways, should really be fired for using the phrase “out of the box thinking.” By using the phrase, you are not being creative.

But that’s not even the start of this argument against this phrase. If you’ve spent time in a creative field or managing creative work, you know a box (constraint) can be good. Giving no boundaries can actually cause paralysis in the creative mind, so framing up the creative exercise (shaping the box) is actually helpful. This, of course, gives another reason to avoid the cliche phrase above.

Now there are a few of you reading this who say, “yeah I don’t like that phrase and cringe when I hear it too.” To those of you who might use it (perhaps too much) your current state of mind may be either rejection or asking the question “okay, what should I say when I want to clearly communicate that we need very creative ideas?” That’s a worthy question - what do we replace this phrase with if we all agree to not use it again for at least a decade?

Here are a few ideas to use in its place.

“We need some uncomfortable thinking today.” Meaning: we need some creative thinking that would make the average person uncomfortable or we need some ideas that you’re afraid to say out loud. Write them down, put them all in a bowl and then randomly pull and share the ideas. Make someone else pitch your very uncomfortable, likely to get fired and career limiting idea.

“We need to push the boundaries today.” Meaning: here’s the frame we’re looking at, we have these constraints (budget, time, offering, audience, etc) and we need to make this a success. What can we do? We own this and need to make it successful within these constraints, what outrageous ideas come to mind? What practical ideas come to mind? Then, again, write them down and pass the punch bowl to a victim near you.

“We’re going to tap the oil well of creativity in your subconscious today.” Meaning: we’re going to frame a problem for your brain to start working on today. We’ll give you the boundaries, what we’ve tried and perhaps what others have tried, then we’re going to set you free. Over the course of a week we’ll remind you to think about the challenge framed up. Then, when we get back together, we’ll pass the punch bowl again and see what comes out.

These are all phrases with methods and practices to support the effort. If you know Capsule’s philosophy on creativity you would know that we believe everyone is creative, yet there are only a few able and willing to use this natural human ability in front of others. And even fewer who get paid for it. The opening phrase gets you started, the methods and practices are what make the ideas fly.

If you’re going to get to an original idea, start with an original method and build from there. And if you’re seeking a cliche idea (copy of the nearest competitor) then start every ideation session with the horribly cliche phrase, “come on people, let’s get some out of the box thinking today.”

Enjoy and we’ll keep the unconscious engine purring.

About The Author

Aaron Keller

I am an author, strategist, researcher, cyclist, reader and consummate entrepreneur. When an interesting idea crosses my path, I find any way we can bring it to life. Earning an MBA from the Carlson School and numerous valuable credits at the school of hard knocks, I’ll sit at a boardroom conversation with anyone. Want to talk business strategy, consumer behavior and design? Oh, it’s on.


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