What Does It Mean to Think outside the Box?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

To “think outside the box” means to handle a situation or challenge in an unconventional manner. The origin of the phrase is believed to date back to the 1960s, and is often associated with a famous mental puzzle called The Nine Dots. While the concept can be extremely useful as a means of stirring up new forms of discovery, it can also be problematic if not used in a rational manner.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The origin of the “think outside the box” phrase is frequently linked to corporate culture in the mid-20th century. Though there are varying claims to the original coining of the phrase, many trace back to a peculiar puzzle involving nine dots. In the puzzle, nine dots are arranged in a square shape, with three rows of three dots. The puzzler is supposed to find a way to draw four lines that pass through all the dots, without re-drawing over any lines. One of the most common solutions to the puzzle is to draw lines that extend beyond the edges of the dot-square; in effect, going “outside the box” created by the dots.

The “box” in this phrase refers to the traditional or conventional knowledge on a subject. In the nine-dot puzzle, the convention that needs to be ignored is that lines should stay within the boundaries of the initial square. When applied to other topics, to “think outside the box” typically means to ignore central tenants of a theory or concept, and forget the way something has always been done.

A person might be asked to think outside the box in order to stir the possibility of innovation. If a fast-food restaurant long-known for its branding as a comfort food location starts to lose customers due to a new health craze, marketers might need to think outside of their traditional branding box in order to make the restaurant appealing to healthy eaters. By taking a radically different, never-tried-before approach to an old situation, a person may increase the chances of coming up with a new, improved method or solution.

The downside to thinking outside the box is that it can sometimes result in the throwing out of good ideas because they are conventional or traditional, rather than because they do not work. If a successful company decided to fire all of its long-standing, loyal employees in order to bring in a new hip, and completely inexperienced crowd as a means of thinking outside the box, it might soon find itself on the brink of financial collapse instead of at the cutting edge of innovation. While learning to think outside the box can be a valuable method of problem solving, it can also be important to learn how and when to apply it.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - I think often people talk about how to think outside the box without really meaning it. They mean going crazy, like wearing Hawaiian shirts on Friday. It's become a kind of buzz phrase, especially in corporate environments, without much real application.


@Iluviaporos - I encountered this a lot when I was at college. Teachers would tell us to let our imaginations run wild in our presentations and then mark us down when we didn't tick every box in their marking sheet (which we never got to see).

I think it should be one or the other. Either you are encouraging creative thinking with no limits and therefore no score card, or you are encouraging it within clear boundaries.

I guess the point is that the box has to be visible for people to know where to step outside.


Actually the nine dot problem demonstrates a perfect example of what I really think is often extremely annoying about people trying to get you to "think outside the box". The point of the problem is to get you to draw four straight lines through the middle of each dot on a grid and figuring out how to do that is supposed to be challenging. But what I found challenging the first time I did it was the way they worded the question. They made it sound like they wanted four lines that each went through the center of the grid, rather than the center of each of the dots, and that did this without you taking your pencil off the paper, which is physically impossible.

I puzzled over it for a long time, trying to figure out what I had missed until I realized the problem was that they hadn't explained their expectations properly.

And that happens a lot, particularly when people are trying to get others to "think outside the box" because they think that making instructions vague will help creativity, but in fact if they have a particular condition in mind they have to say it.

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