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.
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.