Practical ways to think outside the box

Inspired by “Conceptual Blockbusting” by James L. Adams

“Few people like problems. Hence the natural tendency in problem-solving is to pick the first solution and run with it.”

“A better strategy in solving problems is to select the most attractive path from many ideas or concepts.”

We spend years learning how to do, but little time learning how to think.

Drawing some inspiration from Adams, I propose that there is an easy way to improve the quality of your problem-solving.

First, we need to realize the way we solve problems is often dominated by our subconscious. Let’s use this quick example. Connect the nine dots using only four lines:

hmmm.. tricky

How’d you do? If you’ve seen this problem before, you probably got it right. If not, you probably got stuck playing inside the box. Our mind takes the perimeter to be the limit of where a line would possibly go. It turns out, what is needed to solve this problem is, quite literally, thinking outside of the box!

So clever.. yet so evasive

Damn! So easy once you see it, but so tricky to discover the first time around. The reason we struggle with this is because of a certain type of conceptual block: framing the problem, or as Adams puts it, “Tendency to Delimit the Problem Area Poorly.” We subconsciously decide that our lines will go through the center of the dots and not go beyond any particular dot, leaving us with this at the very best:

Whoops.. that’s 5 lines

If we stop thinking that a line must go through the middle of the dot, we can get down to three lines!

What?! Just stop with this

Think we’ve gotten over all the blocks limiting our creativity? Nope. Let your mind be blown one last time.

 Seriously? Who even has time for that?

No matter how much creative jealously you are feeling for those who came up with such inventive solutions, this illustrates a greater point. Our unspoken assumptions are holding us back.

Our assumptions inhibit our problem solving ability. Adams calls these “blocks.” We’re blocked by our perceptions, emotions, culture, environment, intellect and our ability to express ideas.

Luckily, we’re not as screwed as it might seem. While blocks are everywhere, here are two simple steps to improve our problem solving.


Knowing that our biases exist is the best way to combat them. Take the time to step back and analyze your problem from different viewpoints. Get feedback and become aware of how other people see the problem.

Think about the emotions at stake. We can be fearful to propose radical solutions and thus limit our creativity.

As we mature, it seems that cultures discourages the playfulness that helps us discover ideas.

Our environment may not reward the risk-taking that is sometimes required to bring forth a new idea.

Words and numbers can only go so far in communicating an idea.

None of these things are wrong. They are simply things of which we need to be aware.

Knowing these blocks exist will take us leaps and bounds closer to better solutions.

Visual Thinking

Adams discusses “alternate thinking languages” at great depth. We often solve problems verbally. We use our words to explain and work through a solution. Sometimes, we get a cue and use an analytical framework to solve a problem that is more math-based.

The last major thinking language is visual. I argue that this is the most underutilized and thus the most beneficial for us to add to our repertoire. Using visuals to express ideas and communicate them is going to speed up your problem solving process. People are going to quickly understand what you mean. A picture can replace 1,000 words when communicating a new idea.

A last note on the thinking languages: while I argue that we should express ideas visually more often, no language is superior to another. Certain languages apply themselves better to certain problems. We typically utilize the language with which we are most comfortable, but let’s make this a conscious decision. Before diving straight into the problem take a minute to decide which will work best in the particular context.

Problem solving happens every single day. Let’s take the time to bring this thought process more into our conscious awareness.

Next time you’re stumped by a problem, take a step back, check your assumptions and become aware of your blocks. You never know when the perfect solution might be waiting just outside your box.

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