The origin of this well-worn phrase dates back to a brain game invented almost a century ago
I get asked about this phrase all the time in my corporate wokrshops. The reference, it turns out, is quite literal. The “box” they were talking about was actually a 2-dimensional square made up of nine small dots. (Pic #2) The image appeared in Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums in 1914. Instructions read this way:
“Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes.” Loyd was apparently a little sloppy with the game’s rules and probably should have added that the lines must be straight, although he did supply an illustration that makes the meaning clear. (Pic #3)
Simply put: Without letting your pen leave the paper, draw four straight lines through the nine dots. If it’s your first time, you might assume you are bound by an imaginary square or flattened box. But that perception leads nowhere. No matter how many times you try to draw four straight lines without lifting your pen, a dot is always left over.
This is where creative thinking comes into play. “What would happen if I extend one of these lines beyond the box?” What happens — is the solution. (Click on dots on the left.) There’s even more than one way to win (Pics #4 & #5).
In the 1960s and 70s, business consultants resurrected the old Nine Dot Puzzle as a test for corporate trainees. The “box” – with its elements of rigidity and squareness – symbolizes constrained and unimaginative thinking. This is in contrast to the open and unrestricted “outside the box” or “blue-sky” approach to problem-solving.
Quite often, creativity trainers won’t mention to their groups that they are allowed to extend their lines outside the box. Once they hear they were allowed, the trainees protest that it’s not fair — and typically the presenter will respond by saying, ” I didn’t tell you you couldn’t go outside the box.”
What is this fear?
Why wouldn’t we naturally explore the outer limits of this open square? I suspect that it calls up our childhood sense of obedience when we were repeatedly told to color “inside the lines.” When I think of this notion, I am grateful that the little Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg had other ideas.