Out of Box Thinking

Out of Box thinking is a well-known cliché in management jargon. It is used for innovative, nonlinear, disruptive original thinking beyond what appears to be  obvious. Such thinking has led to major inventions and innovations both in technologies and processes. For example, in most businesses, annual budgets used to be drawn up by extrapolating past figures – some increase here, some reduction there. Then someone came up with the concept called Zero Base Budgeting where budgets were drawn from scratch without consideration for the past figures. This was a revolutionary idea for its time. In this process, many inefficiencies hidden in past figures came to fore and the new budget was much more efficient. This, perhaps, was an early precursor to Out of Box thinking.

Nine Dot Problem

I was thinking about the origin of this term. In my view, it came from a classical and well known problem in creativity training. In this, you are required to join nine dots (as given below) using 4 straight lines, without lifting your pen from the paper.

Most of us assume implicitly, by looking at the visual,  that these nine dots represent a Box, and the solution has to be found within the boundaries of the Box (even though no such condition was specified). It is not possible to solve this problem unless we break free from this “imaginary” constraint.

Once we look for solution by going out of this imaginary box, it is possible to solve the problem as given below:

Perhaps this was the origin of this term “Thinking out of Box”

One of the finest examples of this concept is found in the mythological story of Hiranyakashipu and his son Prahlad.

The Story

Hiranyakashipu was a demon king. He hated Lord Vishnu (Earlier Lord Vishnu, in his incarnation as a wild boar, killed the brother of Hiranyakashipu who had “abducted” the Earth and tried to take it to nether regions).

So, he did a severe and tough penance to please Lord Bramha (the Creator). After a long penance, Lord Bramha was pleased and asked Hiranyakashipu to ask for a boon. The demon king asked for the boon of “immortality”. Bramha refused saying that it was against the eternal law of creation; everyone born on this earth is bound to die and hence could never be immortal. Then Hiranyakashipu thought and tried to play smart. He wanted a boon that he could not die or get killed  –

  • By any human or any beast
  • Inside the house or outside house
  • During day or night
  • On earth or in air
  • By Astra (weapons like arrow which are thrown) or Shastra (weapons like sword which are held in hand)

Bramha agreed to this suggestion and granted him the desired boon.

Having got this ‘conditional’ boon, Hiranyakashipu was confident that he was as good as immortal – no one would ever be able to kill him with all these conditions. This overconfidence made him very arrogant and cruel. He proclaimed ,”from now on, I am the God and no one should worship anyone other than me.”

His son Prahlad, somehow, became a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. This infuriated the arrogant Hiranyakashipu to no end. All his attempts to persuade Prahlad to stop worshipping any God other than himself were unsuccessful. He, then, tried many tricks to harm or kill Prahlad but he was always, somehow, saved  by Lord Vishnu. Finally, Hiranyakashipu came to his wits end. One day in a fit of irrepressible anger, he drew his sword to behead Prahlad. But Prahlad remained unperturbed and continued his prayers. He was sure that God would save him. In a rage, Hiranyakashipu asked, “Where is your God Vishnu now? How will he save you ?” Prahlad calmly replied, “ Father,  God is present everywhere in this creation.” Mockingly, the King asked him whether God was present in a nearby pillar also? When Prahlad replied in affirmative, the King tried to cut the pillar into two using his sword. Suddenly, there was a deafening sound and from the pillar appeared an incarnation of  Lord Vishnu called Narsimha (Nar means human and Simha means Lion). Narsimha’s lower body was that of a human whereas the upper body was that of a lion. With a loud roar, Narasimha grabbed the demon king, moved towards the gate of the palace, sat down on the threshold, and put the demon on his thighs. He proclaimed loudly, “O evil king, your death is in front of you. Look here – I am neither a human nor a beast. We are on the threshold – neither inside nor outside the house; you are on my thighs – neither on earth nor in air; this is evening time – neither day nor night; and now I will kill you with my bare claws – they are neither Astra nor Shastra. All the boons given to you by Bramha have been honoured”. Saying this, he tore into the Demon’s body and killed him.

To me, this story appears to be a brilliant example of Out of Box thinking – how all seemingly impossible conditions for killing Hiranyakashipu were met by innovative thinking.

And for the End

I was told that when Americans were preparing to send man to the moon, they wanted him to write a log of different events. But they also realized that the ink, in the pen, will not flow in the space due to the absence of gravity. So, they spent a lot of energy, time, and money in trying to create an ink which would work in zero gravity. Imagine their shock when a young son of a technician suggested  (out of box idea) that they could easily use a pencil instead. 

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