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Why You Should Tell Your Team to Think INside the Box

Photo: Drew Hays

Photo: Drew Hays

When you tell them to think outside the box, you’re crippling their creativity.

I learned this the hard way. I was just starting as a marketing insights consultant. Standing in front of a Fortune 500 client to lead a day-long ideation session.

No good ideas were coming forth.

My client looked worried.

I started to sweat.

And then I made a terrible mistake.

I said, “Think outside the box.”


The group was lost outside the box. By giving them innumerable options, I had actually paralyzed them.

All that happened in the first hour. Over the morning break, I came up with a new game plan, redirected the group, and seriously saved face.

What did I do?

I introduced a constraint.

Constraints Produce Creativity

Constraints are phenomenally effective at generating new thinking.

Constraints present a problem that needs to be overcome. Or an opportunity to leverage. They become a new box to direct thinking.

They enable people — even non-creative people — to draw from their wells of creativity.

This is not a new phenomenon. Look at some examples innovation born of constraint:

  • The iPhone was developed with the constraint: One Button.
  • Twitter was developed with the constraint: 140 Characters.
  • Quora’s constraint: Start with a Question.
  • Nestlé challenged its packaging designers to use less plastic in its water bottles. Designers quickly realized that merely reducing the plastic meant a flimsy bottle. The constraint led them to study the human body. They slimmed the waistline of the bottle and added ribbing to the base. The result was a bottle that could stand alone while using less plastic and was cheaper to produce.
  • Amazon wanted to get buyers to order a product the moment they realized they needed it. The constraint: No computer or phone required. How does that work for an online company? They introduced the Dash Button. The button is tied to a specific product and placed in proximity of that product’s point of use. So for example, if your Dash button is tied to your laundry detergent, the button is placed in the laundry room. When you realize while doing laundry that you’ve used the last of the detergent, simply hit the button. The order is transmitted to Amazon, and the product arrives two days later. (Just make sure that button is out of reach of your toddler.)

The list goes on and on.

The Psychology of Constraints

A blank sheet of paper creates innumerable opportunities. Which creates paralysis. For most people.

They have the ability to create — but they crave a starting point.

Have you ever given a child blank paper for art? What do they usually say first? Most kids say, “What should I draw?” Mine did.

Constraints narrow the options and define the playing field, which forces the brain down a path to create solutions. Humans are wired to find ways to solve problems and work within and around limitations.

In effect, working within the box can make the brain storm more.

Think about it…

We wanted to travel farther faster so a few individuals invented cars and trains and airplanes.

We wanted to communicate with people who live far away thus inventors dreamed up phones and email and texting.

We were weary of walking across the room to change the TV channel, and some hero invented the remote control! (Thank you, hero!)

The limitations generated opportunities.

“Think outside the box” proves paralyzing.

“Throw out the old box. Define a new box. Create within that.” is actually liberating.


Constraints Are Not Just About Solving Problems

I’ve been conducting ideation and innovation sessions for 10 years now.

I never say “Think Outside the Box.”


I usually present an insight or a trend from our research — which serves as the constraint, the starting point.

A story comes to mind…

While working with a bank a few years ago, I presented this statistic: 66% of Americans have less than $50,000 in retirement savings.

I challenged the group to brainstorm how we can motivate people to save more for retirement. We were looking for concepts to test. I had to stop them after an hour of continuous ideation. We had many more insights that we needed to cover.

That’s a good problem to have.


What Can You Do Now?

  1. Identify one trend, insight or problem that your customer is facing.
  2. Pull your team together.
  3. Ask them to come up with ideas that help the customer — focus on the what for now, not the how.
  4. Have fun!


You Can Cultivate Creativity

Sometimes your team needs a little creativity boost. My free eBook might just help:

5 Exercises that Will Make You 10 Times More Creative

I use these exercises to keep the juices flowing — in myself and in my clients. (I am a marketing consultant, after all.)

You can follow my blog on Medium.

You can follow my journey to get published on Facebook.

Bryan Searing