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The Box Rules

Updated: Jul 2

"We aren't thinking outside the box because we spent all our energy understanding what 'the box' is."

We have so many "boxes" in our lives, our work lives, and our school lives. In the business world, we have HR procedures, scripts for converting sales leads, and processes for assembling products.

In the school world, we have class schedules, formulas for writing essays, and algorithms for solving math problems.

The boxes exist for a reason. Scripts for converting sales leads help salespeople avoid techniques we know don't work. Assembly processes help with quality control. Essay formulas teach the structure of how to make a point.

Boxes make us more efficient.

And boxes are the enemy of creativity.

But, how do we get people to think outside the box if... you know... they don't think outside the box?

In an effort to make this blog 1) new, and 2) useful, I reached out to Reddit. I asked, in an education subreddit, "What questions do you have on creativity," so I could dive into them here.

One math teacher asked a particularly striking question:

"I [started doing logic puzzles] because I noticed my students were reticent to reach beyond the mechanics of what we practiced in class. Any time I put a question on a test that required the slightest reach, I was inundated with bland answers and angry students.
Essentially, students weren't thinking outside the box because they spend all their energy understanding what 'the box' is (the rules, notation, and techniques of math). This really troubles me because I try to emphasize to my students that the point of studying math (for those with little to no interest in a STEM path) is to hone these creative problem solving skills, which everyone will need in their life to some degree. At the end of the day, I don't mind if my students forget the quadratic formula - I'll be happy if they can brainstorm, strategize, and analyze. Any tips for helping my students get on board with this philosophy?"

Now, my intent is to make this relevant not just to the education world, but the business world as well. Do you ever have a situation where you ask for ideas, and everything is just too similar to what you currently do, or the first place you look is at what other companies do?

Innovation is what captures your market share, and you won't innovate by doing what other companies do!

The same thing happens in our own minds. Our brains are incredible energy-savers. Once our brain discovers a way of thinking that helps make thinking more efficient, it's harder to get our thinking off that path. It's just the way our brain works.

That's why, as a teacher, when I give my students an example, all of their work winds up being a derivative of the example. I've helped them create a mental pathway, and then it becomes hard to break away from that pathway.

Anna Abraham, in her book "The Neuroscience of Creativity" (Cambridge University Press, 2018), describes this as a "Knowledge Constraint." Specifically, the notion that one of the biggest impediments to generating a novel idea is overcoming the influence of our existing knowledge about the subject.

Seeing past what we already know, or how we already do things, is one of our biggest barriers to creativity. We can't unlearn what we have already learned.

When I was in graduate school, I developed a teaching method that helps students learn to explore the problem to generate creative solutions. The same method can be used when training employees on new systems. It's called the "Delayed Guidance" method, and it works like this:

The Delayed Guidance Method

Step 1: The Teaching Phase

Teach a new process, formula, equation, or method. Review relevant prior knowledge.

For example, calculating the perimeter of a triangle, and calculating the force structures on a bridge.

Step 2: Experimenting Phase

In small groups, work on a collaborative, open-ended problem, that does not have a single, correct solution. The problem should be just outside the learner's ability to solve on their own (but not too far outside). Then, allow the learners to work while providing them with no help whatsoever. Let them work on the problem until they are incapable of moving any further without help.

For example, design a bridge over a river that can also accommodate tall river traffic.

Step 3: The Consolidation Phase

Confer with the whole group:

  • What are people trying?

  • What doesn't work?

  • Why didn't it work?

  • What is your understanding of the problem?

  • How has your understanding of the problem changed since you started?

  • What questions have you formed since you started?

Then, discuss one or more actual solutions to the problem, and how they can answer the questions the learners have formed.

Step 4: The Extension Phase

Armed with their new understanding from the consolidation phase, give the learners a similar open-ended, collaborative problem. Armed with their new understanding, they should be able to generate solutions.


What the delayed guidance method does is it teaches learners how to explore techniques and methods outside of their existing knowledge.

We can't unlearn what we have learned, but we can learn how to work around it.

Sometimes, we need to recognize when we are limiting ourselves with our existing knowledge, and practice working around it. Boxes aren't bad, but we need to recognize when we're stuck in the box, and practice getting outside of it.

The ability to think outside the box doesn't magically happen when someone tells you to think outside the box. Overcoming knowledge constraints is a neurocognitive skill that can be taught and strengthened over time.

In addition, the delayed guidance method is partially based on research performed by educational psychologist Manu Kapur, who has proven that students show better long-term performance with skills when they fail at them first. But, that's a different subject for another post.


Boxes can be good. Boxes help us think faster and perform more efficiently.

Henry Ford said that if he asked his customers what they wanted, before he popularized the automobile, they would have said, "A faster horse."

Innovation depends on the ability to overcome the limits of our current knowledge, and when innovation is what can boost your business, boost your market share, and improve how you serve your customers, it's important to practice working around what we have already learned.


If you're one of the 77% of CEOs who need to get more creativity and innovation out of your workforce, send me a message. If you're a school leader who wants to improve the soil for your students, send me a message. If you have creativity questions you want answered, send them to me and you'll help make this blog new and useful! I'll look forward to hearing from you.

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