The metaphorical phrase, ‘thinking outside-the-box’, is believed to have stemmed from the puzzle of 9 dots arranged 3 by 3 in which you must connect all the dots with only 4 straight lines while not lifting your pencil.

If you see a box here, then you have discovered the trick to this problem. There is no box in reality, it is an illusion and a function of how your brain works.

Your brain is designed to recognize patterns and the familiar, while it avoids the unfamiliar. It does not like gaps in its perception, and tries very hard to fill these in. This is a safety mechanism in your brain to help you determine if something is safe or should be feared. Inside your ‘box’ is familiar, because we know how to function in it. The reason people don’t like change in organizations, is because ‘outside-the-box’ it is unfamiliar and unknown.

To solve the puzzle you must think outside any of the self imposed constraints you perceive with the characteristics of a box, ie. have your lines go out past the edges.

The reason this illusion tricks people is when they see something that looks like a box, the brain recognizes it as such, and attaches meaning to that perception. It has a box pattern, therefore it must be a box. If one thinks things must be contained in a box, then you are stuck in it, hence the metaphor. As a child you learned one does not colour outside the lines. Thank you kindergarten.

To demonstrate my point. If I showed you 9 dots that were not in a perfectly symmetrical box shape, would you feel as constrained? Can you draw four straight lines through all the dots?

Of course you can, but I’m sorry to tell you that you’ve been tricked again. You see, now that you know the solution to the puzzle of 3 by 3 dots, any original constraints you implied to the box changed, and you can never go back. It is now in your bank of experience where it may not have been a few moments ago. Even though your brain may try to make sense of the dots by looking for a pattern, you now know the shape they represent no longer matters, and it is now easier to complete, box or no box. This is the trick to thinking outside-the-box. Know what the constraints are, and then intentionally change them. Tip: Once someone changes their perception, even for a moment, they will never see their original box exactly the same way again.

“I like boxes!” – Pandora

The Brain Loves Constraints.

In the 17th century, philosopher John Locke developed his theory of ‘tabula rassa’ which explains that humans are born with a ‘blank slate’. The concept is that there are no rules for processing data upon birth, but these are added and created as one has sensory experiences. Put simply, you can’t recall something that you have never seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, or felt. The experience is just not there in your memory to recall.

Now of course science has made some strides in neurobiology since the 17th Century, and we now know more about genetic impacts of how the brain is programmed and functions. This may poke a few holes in Locke’s dogmatic theory, but I trust we can agree that if you have not experienced the colour red, it is difficult to comprehend it. Likewise, if you have never tasted chicken, it would be unfair to say that something, ‘tastes like chicken’. How else would you know?

Bringing us back to ‘thinking outside-the-box’, how can you think about something that you have never experienced before? You can’t without some constraint, otherwise your brain has no-where to go. There is no specific neural pathway to fire a few synapse at and come up with something unless a similar concept already rests in your brain for you to recall and compare.


The brain needs some constraints to know what path to start to take. Think of them like the boarder collie herding sheep, the sheep feel they can move freely, but not in THAT direction! Even in our puzzle, there is a constraint of 4 straight lines. So what do you do?

Get into different boxes.

Since the brain functions extremely well in constraints, it is best to work that way, with a bit of a trick. Create a lot of different boxes, and jump from box-to-box. To get ‘out-of-the-box’, create all sorts of new boxes, each one with its own constraints. What would this idea look like from the moon, or as a child, or minority, or blind, or if it were rubber, etc. You can even combine more than one box together. Thinking outside-the-box means thinking in different boxes, what you are looking for is permission to see the problem from different perspectives.

See article on permission called, “Overcoming Silos of One”.

The Solution.

Stop trying to ‘think outside-the-box’ and instead get yourself into many new boxes, change the constraints of your current box, or remove any implied assumptions. While you are at it you can also stop using that confusing statement. Instead ask, “What other boxes can we look at this problem from?”