How to think Outside the Box

The psychological terms restructuring and functional fixedness are relevant to how the creative process works, and can be applied to creative thinking. Restructuring means reorganizing or restructuring a problem to find a solution. Functional fixedness occurs when, as the idea originator, you become restricted by the demands of the task, or other constraints or norms. This functional fixedness means that you have difficulty reconceptualizing the problem to find a solution.

When you use your skills to solve problems creatively, that is, think outside the box, it can be difficult to restructure the problem—to think differently, approach the problem in a new way, or look at it from another angle. But you often need to break with routine to find a creative solution. Over time, and due to lack of practice, you may also become unable to reconceptualize problems because your focus is fixated on the demands of the task, or other constraints—such as deadlines, lack of resources, or workplace norms.

Scheerer's Nine-Dot Puzzle is a good example of restructuring. It asks you to draw four continuous straight lines, connecting nine dots arranged three across and three deep without lifting your pencil from the paper. People find it hard to solve the Nine-Dot Puzzle, as they nearly always assume that they are not allowed to go outside the confines of the square. They literally don't think outside of the box.

Duncker's Candle Puzzle demonstrates problems arising from functional fixedness. Functional fixedness relates to your ability to solve problems and think in a creative way. In an experiment, subjects are given a candle, a box of nails, and other objects, and they are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that wax does not drip on the table. Typically, subjects try to nail the candle to the wall, or glue it to the wall by melting it.

Few subjects consider using the nail box as a candle-holder, and nailing this to the wall. In other words, they are fixated on the box's usual function of holding nails. They cannot reconceptualize it to enable them to solve the problem. Instead, they continue to focus on experience, and allow this to dominate their thinking.

This happens in work situations, too. Your problem-solving efforts may be fixated on a particular approach, because your boss uses this approach. Or your view may be limited because you're focusing too much on the deadline, or lack of resources, instead of looking for the best solution.

If you are struggling to solve a problem, or lacking creative energy, you should consider whether you are fixated by constraints. Are you able to see the project from different angles, or is your ability to think outside of the box being stifled? Asking for input from team members, who aren’t so close to the problem, may enable you to revitalize your creative energy.