How To Think Outside The Box In Business

As a manager, we are often asked to think ‘outside the box’ to find answers to questions that stump us. The question I often ask is ‘how do I think outside the box?’

Well, I came across an interesting study recently by Hudson (1967), who studied thinking in schools and concluded that there were two different forms of thinking or ability at play. He called one form “convergent” thinking, in which the person is good at bringing material from a variety of areas, in such a way as to produce the “correct” answer. This is helpful if you are trying to get just one answer to a problem, and you are plainly just interested in facts.

The other he termed “divergent” thinking. Here is where the thinking out of the box idea can be loosely developed, because the person’s skill is in broadly creative expansion of ideas prompted by an outside stimulus.

In order to get at this kind of thinking, Hudson devised open-ended tests, such as the “Uses of Objects” test:

Here are five everyday objects. Think of as many different uses as you can for each:

* A barrel

* A paper clip

* A tin of shoe polish

* A brick

* A blanket

There’s no time limit to this, but allow around 15 minutes

Your list will test your divergent style of thinking, sometimes linked to brainstorming, and will allow you to generate many ideas. In business, you can highlight a particular problem and then identify many possible options (divergent thinking). You can then assess the quality of them and hone in on the best ones (convergent thinking). It will allow you to think differently, expand your options and gain answers that maybe you hadn’t thought of before.

(My thanks to JS Atherton (2010) and his article ‘Learning and Teaching; Convergent and Divergent Learning’ for further information on this topic)

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

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