The Innovation Blog

Don't just "Think Outside the Box"... Think in New Dimensions

Posted by Jay Terwilliger on May 10, 2013

By Jay Terwilliger

President & CEO, Creative Realities

When a term or illustration becomes overused it becomes a cliché.  There has never been a time demanding more imagination, more creative thinking and more innovation than right now.  Yet I find myself cringing every time I hear someone advocate for “Thinking Outside the Box.”  It’s unfortunate that an appeal for new thinking has become a cliché.

 And the typical puzzle example used to illustrate and intrigue listeners to think more creatively – the 9 dot puzzle, has in itself become a cliché.  By now, most, if not all of you have experienced it:

 “Connect the nine dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the nine dots while never lifting the pencil from the paper.”

9 dot puzzle matrix

The answer, as I’m sure you all now know involves drawing lines that go beyond the artificial limitations of the box.  And by now, you have seen it so many times that your response is based on memory and learning rather than new thinking.

 9  dot puzzle basic solution

It struck me that this very tool has become so overused that it may fail to serve it’s purpose… and indeed that it’s very message is too limiting. “Think Outside the Box” is a great first step.  But innovation requires more.  And innovation recognizes that the concept of a “right” answer presumes there is only one… find it and you have succeeded… is a limiting approach.  The "find the correct answer" approach the very definition of “Old School” – the way we were educated from the time we were five years old.

I’d like to challenge you to the premise that in innovation, there is more than one “right” answer.  And that you should continue to stretch yourself and the boundaries of your thinking to find new, fresh solutions to your challenges.  Achieving this will require not only “thinking outside of the box” but in thinking beyond the task or goal, to be open to challenging any aspect or parameter of the situation you believe applies.  Thinking in more dimensions than are at first apparent.

Just for fun, let’s revisit the 9 box puzzle… and change the “Task” or “Goal”.  Now, let’s make it more challenging: “Connect the nine dots by drawing THREE straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the nine dots while never lifting the pencil from the paper.”

9 dot 3 line solution 

The original "Think Outside the Box" solution was just one way to solve the puzzle.  And most of us have been satisfied with the metaphorical illustration ever since.  Apparently, if we think "outside the box" once, we are done.  The above illustration requires two added "dimensions" to the puzzle.  First, what seems, on the surface as an even more difficult problem -- changing the task/goal from "four lines" to three.  Second, to find the solution, all we have to do is to think a bit farther "outside the box."

What else could you do to find more solutions?  Here's another example, I leave the rest to more creative minds: Challenge the pencil.  It appears to be a "given" dimension of the problem.  We assume that the dots and the thickness of the line the pencil can draw are about the same size.  What if that's not true?  What if we find a pencil that draws a line nearly as thick as the overall dimension of the box created by the dots?  Now we can solve this problem with one line... and we don't even have to go "outside the box" to do it!

9 dot puzzle 1 line solution

For the purposes of illustration, I've chosen to go outside the box, but you can easily see that this solution does not require it.

I’m hoping you will find even more solutions when you challenge some of the original dimensions of the puzzle… and that you will share them with us.

In addition to bringing you a little brain teaser, I’m also hoping that you will consider the impact of thinking more broadly as you seek innovative solutions to today’s challenges.

  1. Don’t stop thinking just because you have found a solution you like… challenge yourself to go further before you settle.

  2. Challenge the “Task” or “Goal” that has been set… is it too narrow and thereby limiting your thought process and related new possibilities? Or is it so broad that it is easily solved with rather "incremental" thinking.

  3. Challenge the obvious “dimensions” or assumptions of the problem.  Are they true dimensions or limitations or just the obvious or existing assumptions?  If you can change them, you can change your entire thinking about what is possible.

Keep on innovating!  And have some fun while you do it!

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Topics: creative, innovative, out-of-the-box, thinking, think different, creative thinking skills