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A Concrete Way to Think Outside the Box

Person with box on their head trying to think outside the box

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had angry and desperate bosses yell in meetings that everyone needs to “Think outside the box!!!” More and more, I suspect those bosses actually had no idea how to think outside the box. Not only that, had they seen an idea that was outside the box, they probably wouldn’t have recognized it.

There is, believe it or not, a secret to thinking outside the box. And it’s pretty methodical so anyone can do it, to a certain extent. That’s what this post is about.

This is the second post in our series on Entrepreneurship. In the first post, I talked about the most important personal trait I noticed in successful entrepreneurs: reflexive problem-solving mentality.

An entrepreneur’s need to problem solve leads naturally to this post on thinking outside the box.

There is a Methodical Way to Think Outside the Box

Believe it or not, there is a systematic way to think outside the box. I can’t help you with the actual idea that you might come up with while thinking outside the box, however. Like all ideas, you’ll need a spark of inspiration. And nobody knows a reliable way to generate that spark.

But I can get you pretty close to the ignition point—put you in the right frame of mind that can best create that spark. The rest, you’ll have to do yourself.

So, what is the systematic way to put yourself in the right frame of mind to think outside the box? It sounds a little boring, but you’ll have to draw up a list.

First, Find All Existing Solutions

It sounds fairly obvious, but, often, the obvious is easy to overlook. To think outside the box, you’ll have to know where the boundaries of the box are. Once you know the boundaries, then you can go outside of it.

Of course, finding the boundaries of the box is hard. That’s where the list comes in.

List All the Known Solutions

The list is a collection of existing solutions to the problem. We know the existing solutions won’t solve your current problem. That’s why your frustrated boss wanted you to think outside the box. Nevertheless, write down every one of the solutions that you can think of.

And I do mean write them down. In my experience, writing them down on paper or on a whiteboard makes them concrete and manipulatable. A written list makes it much easier to see that some aspects of solution A and some aspects of solution B and some aspects of solution C can be combined to give you a new solution.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, this sort of combining isn’t thinking outside the box. But it often does give a good solution. And if the solution solves the problem, it doesn’t matter if it’s an inside-the-box solution or outside-the-box solution.

If you find a good solution this way, you’re done. No need to go outside the box.

Be Sure to Research All the Existing Solutions

When you’re writing down all the existing solutions, make sure you do your research. You might be able to write down a few solutions right off the top of your head, but there are other solutions you might never have heard of. Find them through research and write them down too.

And write down why these solutions work. This is pretty important because the whys will give you a clue on which direction to go when you do start thinking outside the box.

Or you could find an existing solution through your research that solves your current problem. If that’s the case, use that solution. There’s no shame in recycling an existing solution instead of finding a new, outside-the-box solution.

Using an existing solution has the added benefit of knowing what sort of problems tends to arise using this solution. You can guard against the problems more easily than trying a brand new solution.

But if you can’t find a good solution even after doing your research, then go to the next step.

Your Existing Solutions Form the Boundaries of the Box

Once you’ve listed every current solution, you’re halfway to thinking outside the box.

All the current solutions define the boundaries of the box. When you start looking for your new solution, avoid thinking along the veins or using the same logic as the existing solutions. That’s how you go outside the boundaries; that’s how you start to think outside the box.

Once You Know the Boundaries, You Can Step Outside

They say that people who are lost in a forest tend to go in circles without realizing they’re going in circles. It is the same with figuring out a solution to a problem.

From personal experience, I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out solutions to various problems. When an idea didn’t work, I threw the idea away and started from scratch. But, I also knew not to go down that specific road again. Instead, I looked for logical twists and turns that I hadn’t explored before. These dead ends—these ideas that didn’t work—formed the boundaries of the box for me.

And that’s what your list of existing solutions is. They’re thoughts and logical paths to avoid. They’re the boundaries of the box. And by avoiding them, you’ll have a better chance of going outside the box to find a solution.

Everyone has a Different Creative Process

At this point, you’ll have to use some creativity to find your solution. Here, everyone has a different process.

I’m an introvert, so I prefer to go off alone and think by myself. Sometimes I take a walk. Other times, I sit in my office and stare at the wall. And even other times I go do something else and let the problem and the existing solutions percolate in my brain. It’s the introvert’s style of thinking.

But if you’re an extrovert, you might need to sit in a room with other folks and brainstorm. They don’t have to be all extroverts. I’ve participated in brainstorming sessions. But, unless I’ve first gone through my introvert’s thinking process, I was pretty useless in these sessions. Still, this method works for extroverts. I’ve seen them come up with great ideas in such sessions.

Ultimately, Nobody Knows Where Ideas Come From

I hate to make this last part somewhat mysterious, but that’s what the creative process is like. I’ve seen tons of interviews with creative sorts: inventors, writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers. And the interviewers inevitably ask: where do your ideas come from?

The answer is always the same: they don’t know. There are processes that put a person in the right frame of mind to create, and some of these artists use that. But, at the end of the day, nobody seems to know. (Or, if you’re the satirist Terry Pratchett, this is where inspiration comes from.)

You just have to work at it. Think about it, ignore it, let the problem percolate, and be in the right, relaxed, open frame of mind to see solutions. And write them down so you don’t forget.

There is No Miracle Way to an Outside the Box Solution

At the end of the day, there is a method to thinking outside the box, but it also requires creative problem solving. I know it’s a bit of a letdown, but nobody knows where that spark of creativity comes from. I only know that it involves looking at existing solutions and doing something different.

So, by collecting existing solutions, you define the box. And once you define the boundaries of the box, you should be more than half way to that creative solution you need.

And do you know why I think the folks who yell at others to think outside the box don’t actually know how to do it themselves? Because if they did, instead of yelling at people, they’d be telling everyone to sit down and start listing solutions they already know.

Next Up…

Next, we’re going to talk about something that’s been lurking in the background for the past few series of articles. We’re going to talk about payment processing.

You’ll need to understand a little bit of this if you plan to take credit and debit cards for your business. And, these days, who doesn’t?

The payment processing business is a little complicated, a little peculiar, and weirdly antiquated. When you start your business, you can get by for a little while without understanding too much about payment processing. But, eventually, you’ll need to have a better understanding of what the entire process is all about.

And that’s our aim. By the time you finish reading our payment processing articles, we hope you’ll have a pretty good idea of credit cards, debit cards, and other types of electronic money transfers work. At the very least, you’ll understand how you’re being charged, where things can go wrong, and maybe how you can save money on these charges.

So. Here we go. The basics of payment card processing.

Interested in starting and running a small business? Here’s the beginning of our step-by-step guide: What to do right after getting that great business idea.

Questions? Comments?