Growing up I was always told by my teachers and by mass media to “think outside the box.” In order to be considered creative, an idea had to be beyond the current constraints that surrounded it. While it can be beneficial to think outside the box, I learned as I grew up and went through real problems that most times we are constrained ourselves and must make do with the resources we have. Whether that constraint be a budget, time, nitpicky clients, or other limitations we are sometimes forced to operate using the Closed World Principle.

The Closed World Principle is a thinking principle used in innovation that states:

“Look for the creative solution in the problem.” “In our search for a solution, the closer we come to the core of the problem, the more creative the solution is likely to be.”

It was brought to light to me by my Systematic Creativity professor, Dr. Jeffery Robert Parker, and was discovered by Dr. Roni Horowitz. A great example of this is the story of how Dr. Seuss unlocked his creative genius. After failing to launch his career as an author and having his book And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street rejected over 25 times by publishers, Dr. Seuss was met with a challenge. The challenge came when he was asked to write a book for beginning readers. He was presented with a list of 350 words that all children in grade one should know and was told that he could only use words that were on that list to write the book. To make matters even more challenging, he could only use 250 out of the 350 words that were on the list. The first words Dr. Seuss saw on the list were “cat” and “hat.” Using only 225 words, The Cat in the Hat was written and was an instant success. Teachers all over the United States picked up the book for their students and Dr. Seuss began a long successful career.

Shortly after the publication of The Cat in the Hat, Seuss was met by a bet from his editor, Bennett Cerf. Cerf placed a $50 bet that Seuss could not write a children’s book using only 50 words. Seuss accepted yet another daunting challenge and one of the most successful children’s book of all time was created in Green Eggs and Ham. Green Eggs and Ham is currently the fourth best selling children’s book in history and was created with great constraints. In some cases, placing constraints on yourself can be beneficial.

“Constraints — far from being opposed to creativity — make creativity possible. To throw away all constraints would be to destroy the capacity for creative thinking. Random processes alone, if they happen to produce anything interesting at all, can result only in first-time curiosities, not radical surprises.”

-Margaret Boden

There are many success stories that come from thinking inside the box and most all of us will experience such constraints in both the real world and in our careers. An issue most people have when attempting to come up with a creative solution to a problem or an innovative idea is Functional Fixedness. Functional Fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only the way it is traditionally used. When you’re looking at a complex project you see it as a whole. Subsequently, you miss other possible uses. Sometimes the best ideas come from repurposing an already existing product. A technique used to get over functional fixedness was created by American Scientist, Tony McCaffrey and is called the General Parts Technique. This technique includes breaking down an object into parts or components and asking two questions:

1.) Can it be broken down further? If so, do so.

2.) Does your description imply a use? If so, describe it more generically.

In using this technique it is important not to look at a component as part of the whole object, instead look at it as an individual object. An example is taking a candle apart and labeling the wick as a string thus giving it more functionality. In order for us to be innovative, it is important that we drop the labels of current products and use our own creative minds to come up with new solutions to new and existing problems.


There are several creative techniques in thinking inside the box that I will dive further into in future posts. Be sure to follow the blog so you don’t miss it!


2 thoughts on “ Think Inside The Box ”

    1. An example I like is the rusted lug nut example. You’re stranded on the side of the road and can’t get your rusted lug nut off of your wheel and you have no WD-40. Two examples of thinking inside the box would be to use your dipstick to grab oil from your engine and apply it to the lug nut as lubricant. Also, fit your tire iron onto the lug nut and use your jack to leverage the tire iron and work the lug nut loose. Using what you have to get the job done, that is thinking inside the box.


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