Thinking Outside the Box

If at first you don’t succeed – take a different approach!

There are two ways of tackling a problem – logically and creatively. Most people use the former approach. However, many problems just cannot be solved logically, because we are used to making assumptions about the information that we gather in an effort to try and overcome the problem. It is important, with problem solving, to beware of having fixed ideas.

Let me give you an example. A person goes into a shop and points to some items that she wants to buy and asks how much they are, receiving the answer that they are 50p each. “OK,” she says, “I’ll take 20.” “Certainly, Madam,” says the assistant, “That will be £1.”

“Just a minute,” you are thinking, “How can 20 items at 50p each come to £1?” The reason why you think this is that you have automatically made an assumption, and it is a wrong one. You are thinking logically because it looks like a mathematical problem and maths is solved by logic. You need to look at it from a different angle – you need to think creatively. If the product costs 50p, then 20 of them must cost 20 x 50p = £10. So forget the price and concentrate on the product. How many of the product would cost £1? That’s right – two; only two items are sold. How can two items amount to 30? The answer is ‘3’ + ‘0’. One item is ‘3’ and the other item is ‘0’ – house numbers!

We call this ‘thinking outside the box,’ or ‘creative thinking’ (often called ‘lateral thinking’) because we are thinking outside of the assumptions that would normally restrict us – the following example will illustrate this:

The problem is to join all nine dots using only four straight lines without taking your pen off the paper and without retracing a line. No matter how many times you try, I’ll wager you won’t be able to do it – the most you will achieve is joining eight of the dots, something like this:


Why is this? Well the difficulty is that the nine dots are in an oblong (or a box) and we tend to confine ourselves to thinking within this box. No matter how many times you try, thinking within the oblong, the ‘box’, you will always have at least one dot left. Try it for yourself!

The answer lies in ignoring the boundary of the ‘box’. Go outside it and you will find the solution:


So if you cannot answer your problem logically, try tackling it creatively. Let your mind explore different concepts and create different possibilities. Have you ever heard of ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ thinking? It has been proved that the left-hand side of the brain deals with logical thought (mathematics, black and white, timetables, shopping lists, learning by rote), whereas the right side of the brain deals with creativity (music, poetry, pictures, the arts, colour, etc.). We are much more effective if we use both the logical (left brain) and the creative (right brain) approach. Have you noticed that it is much more difficult to learn a passage of prose or random facts than a passage of poetry or words of a song, and that you learn the tune of a song before you remember the words? Do you know the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip with Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy the dog? I remember one of the strips well – the first picture showed Charlie Brown sitting at his school desk. Voice off is the teacher saying, “Charlie Brown, recite your four times table.” Next picture is Charlie Brown saying: “Da-da di Da, Da da di-Da, Da da di- Da, Dad da di- Da Da …”. Next picture is Charlie Brown saying, “I remember the tune, Miss, but I’ve forgotten the words!”

We are basically at a disadvantage, as traditionally we are taught from infant school upwards to learn by the logical approach – reciting times tables by rote and memorising historical dates, facts and figures by rote. We are not encouraged as children to be creative, as the school curriculum does not cater to it. This carries on right through our education. Take the following question set in an A-level examination in physics: “Given a barometer, how would you ascertain the height of a tall building?” A barometer is an instrument that measures air pressure. The answer obviously lies in a formula of physics, by way of an algebraic equation that converts air pressure into height, i.e., air pressure decreased in a strict ratio to gravity the higher one is. One student, who obviously hadn’t studied as much as he should have, couldn’t remember the equation and wrote this as an answer: “I would purchase a large ball of string and tie one end of the string onto the barometer. I would then take the lift to the top of the building, go onto the roof and let the barometer down by the string over the edge until it reached the ground. I would then measure the length of the string.”

Now, this is a perfectly correct answer, given the question, but of course the student received no marks for it! Can you think of any other ways, given a barometer, that you could find the height of a tall building?

‘Brainstorming’ is an ideal way of encouraging creative thinking – using a group of people to bounce ideas off each other. I used to lecture a lot on management skills, and one of the group activities that made participants realise this was one concerned the humble paper clip. The participants were shown a paper clip and then asked to write down, within a 10-minute period, as many things that they could think of that could be done with a paper clip.

Do you know that the average number of things that the average middle manager could think of, in that period of time, were five (and many of them even failed to put down ‘clipping sheets of paper together’!).

I would then split them up into groups of six or seven, give each group a paper clip, and then ask them to repeat the process. Before they started, however, I would say something like this to them: This morning after my shower, I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror admiring my fine physique. What was that I noticed? Horror of horrors, was that belly-button fluff I spied? Not to worry, I quickly grabbed and straightened out my trusty paper clip and winkled the fluff out. Later that day, whilst cleaning a window, I slipped and my arm crashed through the window and the broken glass gashed my wrist – an artery had been severed and blood was gashing out. Not to worry; I quickly grabbed a paper clip and clipped the ends of the artery together, stopping the flow of blood until the ambulance arrived.

The object of this was to show the groups that any use of a paper clip should be noted down, no matter how daft or ‘off the wall’ it may seem. When the groups came back together after 10 minutes, the difference was remarkable. Each group would have at last 25-30 uses on their list. By the way, I have a list, collected over time, of some 250 different things a paper clip could be used for!
So – with logical thinking there is only one correct answer, but with creative thinking there may be many answers of which you can choose the best for your purposes.

If you would like to pursue this there are two masters of the art – Tony Buzan, who ‘invented’ mind maps – a way to put down ideas onto paper creatively. They really do work; it’s a sort of brainstorming on your own. Just type in ‘mind maps’ on your Internet search engine and you can find out all about them. The other master of the art is Edward De Bono – again, type his name into your search engine and see what comes up.

One last problem to set your mind working: This is a logical problem – there is only one answer and it can only be answered if you approach it logically. However, your brain will think that it is a creative problem only answerable by lateral thinking. This is because the problem has to do with a picture and it is in rhyme. Because of this, your brain will go around in circles and finally explode!

The problem is this: A man is standing in front of a photograph of a person. Pointing at the photograph he says:

“Brothers and sisters have I none, but that man’s father is my father’s son.”

Who is he looking at?

The first person who emails us at with the correct answer and the logical sequence of approach to answering it will receive a prize of an extra year’s free Membership in the Institute!