How do you think outside the box if you don’t know you’re in one?

We’re told every day as marketing strategists and business innovators to think outside the box. But we’re not often told how to recognize when we’re in one.

Our brains are designed to box up concepts so we can process them, and shifting that way of thinking requires a concerted effort to end-run our own subconscious.

Case in point: A professor once asked my psychology class to tell him about his house. His house, not our own — which none of us had ever visited.

Your house has a front door, we told him. Walls that divide the rooms into smaller, square spaces. There’s maybe a little bit of dust in the corners where you can’t reach with the broom.

We had no idea he lived in a geodesic dome.

According to the schemata concept, our brains create individualized frameworks or mental structures that help us categorize ideas and view the world. They help us shortcut the processing of information because some data inputs are made into Givens. We couldn’t come up with the idea of a house with no corners because, in our heads, all houses had corners.

The very words we use and the way we look at problems and situations can blind us to other ideas. The way we frame questions can hamper our brainstorms and our understanding of one another, because everyone’s schemata are different. My mental image of a tree may have pinecones; yours may have palm fronds. If we want to come together on how to landscape the yard, we have to back up and identify how our existing assumptions have already framed our thinking before we move forward on brainstorming and evaluating options that can exist outside that frame.

We can be more innovative, work together more effectively, create stronger thought leadership, and come up with better solutions together if we back up to identify the boxes we’re in. J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst did this to amazing effect with their book “S.” In an era when electronic is the way to go and e-readers are more frequent sights than dog-eared pages, they published a book that is built – built – to have its pages turned, its loose ephemera shaken out and unfolded to reveal side journeys in the story, its “eau de grandpa’s attic” sniffed. They built a book that eschews any box for the concept of “book.”

So the next time someone asks you to “think outside the box,” ask yourself first, which boxes am I in?

Photo Credit: Britta Gustafson, Flickr.

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