We are all familiar with, and maybe a little tired of, the phrase “think outside the box.”  The phrase has really become a cliche.  You don’t need me to tell you that, but I said it so lets move on.

What does it mean to think outside the box?  When someone says we need to think outside the box what are they expecting happen?  I think when a person says we need to think outside the box they really mean you need to think outside the box.  If thinking outside the box was that easy no one would have to tell us to do it.  In fact, we would probably do it naturally.

Before I go further on getting out of the box, I want to explore where the box came from in the first place.  I read a problem solving book a few years ago that provided useful insights on impediments to effective thinking.  The author asserts that people develop mental shortcuts that enable us to process information more quickly.  These shortcuts are based on patterns the mind stores and uses to process information.  Patterns and shortcuts are helpful time savers with simple tasks such as matching names with faces but it can be a hindrance when we are trying to solve complex problems like buying a car.  If we don’t take time to think through our decision we may rely too heavily on shortcuts and make a bad decision.  I bought a car several years ago and failed to consider my actual driving habits.  I ended up making a bad choice and spent several years getting over it.  It was a painful experience but I learned a valuable lesson.

Was I guilty of thinking inside the box?  Probably.  I was driving an SUV that I thought was no longer cost effective to own.  It was spending a lot of time in the shop and I was spending a lot of money maintaining it.  Did I need to replace it?  I’ll never know.  Did I need to replace it with another SUV? No.  I did not carry passengers enough to need a big car.  I did not live in a place where weather affected my travel.  I liked the size and convenience of an SUV.  I was single so I did not mind the payment (at first).  I loved the idea of owning a new car.  Aha!  There was the box.  In the book referenced above the author states that emotion overwhelms our ability to reason.  I could have purchased a used car and saved a lot of money.  Since I had recently experienced the inconvenience of a series of costly repair bills I decided I did not want another used car.  However, I could have purchased a more economical car and still saved money.

This leads me to what I believe what it truly means to think outside the box, challenging your assumptions.  I believed a new SUV was what I needed.  That belief was based on several assumptions.  I don’t want to deal with the inconvenience or cost of repair.  I was a skier so I convinced myself that my lifestyle demanded an SUV.  Surely gas will always be $.95/gallon.  Challenging any one of those assumptions would have affected my thought process and led to a different buying decision.  I was trapped in an SUV-shaped box and I was not able to get myself out using the tools in my toolkit.

This leads me to the most-recent chapter in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.  It is dedicated to the concept of a mental model.  A mental model represents how we view a situation and the thought processes we use when working within that situation.  Mental models are based in part on a set of assumptions.  As noted earlier in this post, a person’s assumptions are based on their experiences.  A mental model is comprised of tasks and rules used to navigate situations and we all use them to complete common tasks.

Are you struggling with a task?  Are you not getting the results you used to get?  It is worthwhile to examine the assumptions that affect your mental model.  You might be surprised what you find.  In this increasingly complex culture we live in, you might realize your assumptions need to change.

How do you challenge your assumptions?  I introduced a critical thinking book earlier.  In it the author provides several methods for solving problems.  One of them is to simply ask “why?” until you come across something you had not considered before.  Another method is to document the sequence of events in a situation.  The author provides 14 different techniques.  I gave you two of the easier ones.  Some of the others are complicated.  If you’re more into creative thinking, I recommend this book by Roger von Oech.  Its less practical but if you’re looking for an interesting read or struggling with your assumptions check it out.  Its a light read with lots of clever pictures.  The author also has a website if you are interested.

To answer my own question, I don’t think anyone can truly think outside the box.  To be an effective thinker, a person should not take anything for granted in their thinking, consistently challenge their assumptions, and be open to ideas that differ from theirs.