Why it’s so hard to think outside the box

Many leaders encourage their team to think outside the box.

This sounds good but it’s its not very helpful.


Because it’s hard to do.

Here are two reasons why most people struggle to think outside the box.

  1. Because of the way our mind works

Our mind likes to work in patterns (an Edward de Bono insight).

Patterns are formed from experiences of what works and what does not.

Things that work tend to form patterns and are reinforced over time.

The use of patterns is fast and efficient.

These patterns include our assumptions and beliefs.

Patterns are also formed around the conventions we tend to follow even to the language we use in certain professions (e.g. Law for example).

These patterns form habits, routines and processes.

In a sense these patterns form a mindset box.

This box informs what we see and do not see and what weight we put on these.

Your mindset box is safe and comfortable.

It provides a structure and a sense of certainty and predictability.

But it can trap your thinking.

You can feel stuck.

Venturing outside this box can be uncertain, unpredictable and involves perceived risk.

Particularly when your patterns are based on what has worked in the past.

2. Because of our way of thinking

Our education system tends to teach one way of thinking – which is called Critical Thinking.

Critical Thinking revolves around the use of logic, analysis, planning and rationality.

It’s a powerful way of sorting, structuring and assessing the validity of information.

Critical Thinking is valuable to evaluate and prioritise new ideas, solutions and opportunities.

The goal of which is often to minimise risk, it’s designed for use in argument and is ideal for adversarial  professions such as politicians and law for example.

Proponents of critical thinking suggest that it’s the ultimate (and only?) way of thinking.

In essence there is a Critical Thinking Box.

But this box as the metaphor suggests can be limiting.

You can be trapped inside this box.

Critical Thinking does not embrace imagination, intuition, play, systems thinking and emotion for example.

What to do?

There are many ways to think outside the box.

These include mind wandering experiences such as the aha moment in a shower for example.

These can be profound.

But it is not as valuable if you need an out of the box idea in the next hour for example.

In this case you will need a tool kit such as Switch Thinking for example.

Switch Thinking can help you stretch you mind and way of thinking.

For example:

What is a 1% improvement?


What can make a 100% difference?

This Switch Thinking prompt asks you to think in a different, exponential way.

In other posts I discuss the complete Switch Thinking System consisting of 6 Switches, prompts and a switch and connect process.

All aimed to help you and your team to think outside the box, when and where you need to.










Check out the 6 Switches Canvas. It’s simple, practical and free.