What To Do When Stuck Thinking In The Box

A 2009 survey of employers by CareerBuilder and Robert Half International found that nearly 25% indicated that creativity (a.k.a. “thinking outside the box”) was as important a characteristic as having the basic job qualifications.  But it doesn’t take a dated survey to tell us that thinking outside the box is a vital skill, even for engineers.  In an environment of fiscal constraint and uncertainty everyone wants someone who can make something out of (a) nothing; or (b) just a little.  Those who do this are automatically valuable in any organization.

This is great news if you’re creative with a bent for operating out of the lines.  But for those that feel they aren’t, or don’t have the track record yet established, it’s stressful.  What actually constitutes “thinking outside the box”? How to you break free from the box?

The Box.  The box is what you’ve learned: processes, methodologies, and scripts.  Thinking beyond the box means using these elements as a foundation, then going beyond to create something new.  You don’t need to be Andy Warhol, you simply need to use what you know to create something new.  That’s getting outside the box.

Brainstorming.  If creativity is all that “thinking outside the box” really is, then you can jump-start it by brainstorming.  This is a tool that most of us have used at one time or another to generate multiple associations to a central theme.  It’s effective if you need a process for generating ideas.  I use it on everything from topics for these blog posts to determining strategies for infrastructure asset management.

Inspiration.  Outside the box thinkers are thought to be highly inspired.  Inspired by what?  Inspiration that comes from knowledge of many things, then from being able to see patterns between what’s known.  Inspiration comes from many directions…fear, conversations, learning, yoga, a good Gelato.  But it only comes to those who are constantly learning, expanding what they know, and remaining connected to their surroundings.

Staying Tuned-In to Get Outside.  From my experience, those people who are most tuned-in to a situation, and life in general, are those people who are best able to think outside the box.  It’s because they are very attuned to a particular problem or situation and they are able to clearly decipher what outcome is necessary. From this clarity they are able to laterally think their way to an “outside the box” solution.

The best means to getting yourself outside the box in your thinking is through problem solving and decisions.  The more problem solving you do in your life, the more complex the decision, the greater the opportunity to develop the processes you need in place to be an out-of-the-box thinker. 

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” John Steinbeck

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.