Thinking Outside the Box
The following examples of thinking outside of the box are
meant to stimulate your creativity. Some of them are true stories
of creative problem solving, and others are just ideas generated
using lateral thinking techniques. I include a few notes on the
basic approach used to produce each idea, so you can get our
own thinking out of the box.
Where to Put Sidewalks
Years ago I read a story about an apartment complex that was
built without cement walks leading to the various doors. "In
the box" thinking says that you always install sidewalks
where you think they are needed. But the developer of this particular
complex noticed that everywhere there were multiple buildings
with multiple entrances, there were also paths worn in the grass.
People took whichever path seemed the shortest or most convenient,
and traffic flows are difficult to predict prior to people actually
using buildings. He realized that putting sidewalks where one
thinks they are needed doesn't work that well.
The solution? He waited until people lived in the apartments
for a couple months and watched for the wear patterns in the
lawn. Where the people actually walked he installed sidewalks.
As you might imagine, they followed many of the shortest routes
between buildings and between parking areas and doors, but not
necessarily the routes that a builder might have guessed. It's
a great example of thinking outside the box.
To encourage this kind of creative and non-conformist thinking,
stop once in a while and notice problems with the way things
work. Identify what ideas you have about what is "supposed
to be" or what people are "supposed to do," and
drop them. Look carefully for what is actually there or what
is actually happening, and look to that for inspiration.
How do you change the economic policies of a country? You
might use the political process, by convincing enough people
to vote for the candidates with better policies. But that's too
"in the box" for our purposes. What's a more creative
solution? In The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford,
there is the true story of how the World Bank shamed the Ethiopian
government into changing a law.
Entrepreneurs in the country couldn't start a business without
publishing an official notice in government newspapers. Unfortunately
this cost about four years' average salary - a very discouraging
regulation. The World Bank openly criticized the government for
this, and resulting bad press encouraged the government to change
the law. New business registrations immediately went up by 50%.
The more basic idea here is to set aside the normal solutions
and look at other forces that can be used instead. In addition
to shaming a government, it might have been possible to encourage
change by demonstrating how it would result in more revenue,
or by withholding help, or by naming the law for the politician
who would have the most influence in making the change. Greed,
fear, desire for fame and other forces are all there to be used.
The Unmoved Apple
When young I always played around with basic concepts of physics
and science. One day a friend and I were in the back of a pick-up
truck that was moving along at about 30 miles-per-hour. We had
a bag of old apples that he started to throw at the trees as
we drove by them. Watching the arc of the apples I realized that
if I could throw an apple directly opposite the direction we
were going, and at the same velocity relative to me as the truck
was moving relative to its surroundings, the apple would fall
straight to the ground.
After a few tries we made it work. If you were to stand on
the side of the road you would see my friend or I throwing it
with some force, yet the moment we released the apple it would
go neither forward nor backward. It would simply drop straight
down to the ground (we knew we had it right when they didn't
Now how do you use this kind of playing around to get your
thinking outside the box on real life problems? Look for applications
for the lessons learned. Considering it now I remember many times
seeing a highway repair truck moving along slowly for a mile
or more while an employee sets traffic cones down. If there was
a device to slide them out at the same speed the truck was moving
they would drop nicely onto the pavement at a much faster rate,
saving many hours of labor on some projects. Look for applications.
My Lateral Thinking Puzzle
I had the following lateral thinking challenge in the Brainpower
Newsletter a while back: A piece of chalk the size and shape
of a pea is large enough to make a line just a few meters long.
How, then, can you use it to create a circle fifty meters across?
I think the solution that I offered was to throw it in the
middle of a pond of still water, because the ripple created would
expand out to a perfect circle of fifty meters. But subscribers
emailed me several other good solutions, all possible because
they didn't limit themselves to the usual makings of "the
box," such as the assumption of a continuous line, or using
the chalk itself for a line. Mark a circle in the sand using
the chalk, suggested one. Another had the idea to make a dotted
line for the circle, perhaps drawing an inch of the line every
Identify those assumptions that other are making and that
you are making (a car has to have wheels, a war has to be fought
with guns, a restaurant has to have seats). That's what the box
is made of. Challenging those is how you get your thinking outside
My Kite Propulsion Boat
I had a small sail boat when I was younger, and I also used
to play with kites. Regular sail boats are complicated, with
masts, booms, and keels, but a simple kite can propel a canoe
or other boat. I tried it with a rowboat once, so I know that
it works. A para-sail would be light to carry and simple to use.
(I imagine that, like many of my ideas, this has been done many
times before, so feel free to email me if you've seen "kite
sails" for sale for boaters.)
Combining different ideas in this way - starting with our
own experiences - is a great way to get out of the box with your
invention and business ideas.