8 tips to think outside the box

Thinking outside the box is more than just a cliché. It means approaching problems in new, innovative ways, “conceptualizing” them differently. But how do we think “outside the box”? How do we develop the ability to tackle problems in a different way than usual? How do we cultivate the ability to look at things differently than usual?

It is and remains difficult. Also easier said than done. I myself notice that time pressure in particular is a major culprit. “Just quickly come up with a solution”. During my article about design thinking, this topic was already discussed. Based on my experience and tour of the web, I have 8 tips below to think better “outside the box”. Good luck putting your thinking to the test!

1. Go back to basics

What would you do if you could start from scratch? Routine is the enemy of innovative thinking, but it is also a precedent. Often you have trouble deviating from ways in which you used to do it. By enscuring a clean slate, you can change perspective and think outside the box. If you’re trying to think outside the box, ask yourself “why” you do what you do.

Suppose you are thinking of ways to sell a specific product or service. Instead of thinking about how to sell to a customer, ask yourself why they should buy your product or service in the first place. Why does this make a difference? Why should anyone care? Why is your product or service unique? Why would a customer or client choose you?

2. Simplify your thoughts

Stop thinking too much. Nothing is more complex than thinking while stuck in a jumble of thoughts and ideas. This makes it difficult to distance yourself from what is in your head. A useful tip: try to simplify the problem so that you can explain it to a child. Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman once said, “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t really understand the problem.” Sometimes figuring out the simplification of a complex problem statement already results in an innovative solution.

3. Think outside the box

How do you think outside the box? Think the exact opposite of what you already thought. After all, it’s easy to be obsessed with your own words and ideas. However, it’s not so easy to refute your own thoughts. It will force you to find possible loopholes or shortcomings in your ideas and therefore expand ideas or propose new ones. By forcing yourself to see the opposite, you will open your brain to all possibilities.

4. Turn it upside down or backwards

Turning something upside down can help you see patterns that aren’t otherwise clear. The brain has a lot of pattern-shaped habits that often obscure other, more subtle patterns. For example, you might ask yourself what a problem looks like if the least important outcome is the most important, and how you can then solve it.

Just like turning something upside down, working backwards can also lead to innovative insights. A good example is the given “backward planning”, where you start with a goal and think about the steps needed to achieve it, until you get to where you are now.

5. Study another industry

I currently work in the office supplies industry but get a lot of my solutions from other industries (especially food and fashion). Industries that are more challenging, leading the way or perhaps have a very different but interesting dynamic. Go to the library and buy a trade magazine in an industry other than yours, or grab a few books from the library and learn how things are done in other industries. You’ll find that many of the problems people face in other industries are similar to the problems in your own industry. This way you discover other ways in which the same problem is dealt with.

6. Create a mind map

A mind map can help you organize what’s going on in your brain. It’s an easy way to brainstorm creative ideas. You start with one topic and create branches into sub-boxes, which then divide into sub-sub-subjects. Don’t worry about the structure or your thought flow; all you have to do is visualize your ideas. This gives you a piece of tangible creativity to think further out of the box.

A mind map can subconsciously lead you to brilliant ideas.

7. Make a drawing

Let’s test your right brain. Grab a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and try to imagine your problem. By visualizing a problem, other ways of thinking are also enabled that we normally do not use, giving you a creative boost again.

8. Ask a child for advice

I don’t believe in the idea that children are natural or creative before society “ruins” them, as this well-known TED talk pretends. But I do experience that children think and talk about conventions with an ignorance that can be useful. Ask a child how they would address a problem. Don’t have a child “at hand”? Then see tip 2 and formulate it in such a way that a child can understand it.

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