How to Develop ‘Out-of-the-Box’ Thinking

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Thinking outside the box is a talent that most employers value. But for those who have, here’s a quick test to gauge ones’s creativity


Using the items in the illustration below (a box of thumbtacks, a book of matches, a candle), you must find a way to fix or attach a lit candle to the wall, without the candle wax dripping on the table. Take a few minutes to figure out how to do this.

This mental test is known as the Duncker’s Candle Problem, named after Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker. It measures the influence of functional fixedness in an individual’s problem-solving capacity (for those playing along, the answer is near the end of the article). Functional fixedness is defined as the bias that limits individuals to only see the normal (or traditional) purposes of objects. For example, if you need a pen holder and you only have an old mug, functional fixedness may give you the “cognitive bias” to only see the mug as it is: something to contain liquid and nothing more. Without this functional fixedness, one would realize that the empty mug could pass off as a perfect makeshift pen holder. Duncker himself defined functional fixedness as a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.” Simply put, if you are prone to functional fixedness, it might be harder to employ “out of the box” thinking that is required to solve the puzzle above.


Ask any boss to enumerate what particular talents they look for in an employee and most probably, “thinking outside the box” would rank high on that list. This is especially true for advertising agencies or PR firms. Out-of-the-box thinking paves the way for truly creative and revolutionary ad concepts and campaigns that tug at the heartstrings of the public. Most often, these are the ideas that persist through decades, bridging generation gaps through its high recall value (who could forget Joy’s catchy “J-O-Y” jingle, or Tolit’s famous “Nagbubura ng kalawang!” line?). Thinking outside the box does not solely mean churning out award-winning ideas; it also means having the capability to solve a problem differently, just like what is needed to solve the Candle Problem above. Thus, out-of-the-box thinking is a talent that is useful for any job, be it an accountant, a teacher, or even someone in a managerial position who needs to come up with innovative ideas to motivate her team. But what if you weren’t born to be an out-of-the-box thinker? Is there any way to get that edge?



Fortunately, like many other talents, out-of-the-box thinking can be fostered and developed.

Here’s how:


The main thing that limits creativity is the fear of being called stupid because of one’s silly idea. But most often, it is these ideas that usually work. The next time you are brainstorming, turn off that impulse to edit yourself and just keep throwing ideas on the table, no matter how silly they might sound. This exercise will also encourage other members to pitch their own bad ideas, or to tweak yours into something better. Somewhere in that pile is a gem of a concept that can be developed and improved.


Contrary to common belief, freedom does not encourage creativity. In fact, it might even make it harder to think up of good concepts. A better alternative would be to set specific parameters to work in. For example, if you need to think up of a product for women, focus on one specific age group (like teens or menopausal women). Or, say you need to make a tourism campaign. Instead of including every destination in the country, it would be easier to limit yourself to Heritage sites only.


Andrew Rossi, creative director at MBooth, a Manhattan-based communication agency, revealed to his secret to motivating people: Once, during a brainstorming session, he put 100 dollars in bills at the center of a table. He then instructed his team to get one for every idea they have. “In 15 minutes, we came up with 100 ideas,” Rossi says. “Fifty of them were really interesting.” Try holding a friendly competition with your peers on who has the best idea. The prize isn’t as important as the spirit of competition.


Think back and try to remember something that you really hate, like long lines at the MRT, or a fluctuating Wi-fi signal. “Usually, if something has bothered you, that means there’s a hole in the service,” says Barry Staw, an organizational behaviorist at University of California. In every problem, there’s a goldmine opportunity for a solution — either by creating a new service, tweaking the old one, or making a revolutionary product that fixes it. The best ideas are those that come from a person’s frustration. Just look at the potato chip: after a customer complained that his potato wedges were “too thick”, the chef angrily cut up the potatoes into very thin slices, which gave birth to the snack we all love. Think of it as accidental outside-the-box thinking.


The easiest way to overcome functional fixedness is to simply break the norm. Think about the functions and the processes of everything you’ve encountered and try to imagine what life would be like if things were different. Think about a library where, instead of borrowing books, you get to take one in exchange for putting a new book of yours. Or, rather than hiring a cashier to make transactions, you have an “honesty jar” set up near the entrance of the store instead. This enables you to see the world at a different light, in an angle where things are fresh and the perspective is new. Remember: You are only limited by the fences you put up. If you break the conventional meaning of things, you’ll be able to employ out-of-the-box thinking easily, leading to fresh ideas and creative solutions to difficult problems.

To illustrate that point, let’s go back to the puzzle above. The challenge is to use the items inside the illustration (a box of thumbtacks, a book of matches, a lighted candle) to somehow fix or attach a lit candle to the wall without the melted wax dripping below. The solution to this problem can be seen below:


The answer to the Duncker’s candle problem is to simply empty the box of thumbtacks, attach it to the wall, then mount the lit candle on the box, preventing any melted wax from dripping on the table below. The thumbtacks box is the key to solving this dilemma. It is a solution that is literally “out-of-the-box”. It’s usually hard to see the other possible uses of the thumbtacks box (apart from holding the tacks). Some researchers tweak this experiment by separating the thumbtacks from the box, thus eliminating functional fixedness and making the solution more obvious. Of course not every problem will be that convenient, which makes out-of-the-box thinking an important skill to have. Just in case you are still having a hard time thinking outside the box despite trying out the steps mentioned above, then maybe it’s not your mindset that’s the problem. As someone once said: “If you keep trying to look for employees who can think outside the box, then maybe it’s the box that need fixing.”



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