At the beginning of a critical thinking workshop
, I’ll often pose the question, “What do you think critical thinking is?”. I get about half a dozen responses and one of those is usually something about “thinking outside the box”. My response is always, “What’s the box?”. I usually get a reply, “outside of your normal everyday thinking”. This is all good, but for most, “normal everyday thinking” is not very well defined.
Before you can “think outside-the-box”, you must be clear on the situation and understand what the current box is.
Define the situation.
Even without first defining what “Outside-the-box” is, ask; Why do we want to “think outside-the-box"? This might include questions such as; Are current solutions not working? Do we know why they are not working? Are we looking for a breakthrough? Are we bored with the current solutions? Did something happen that requires us to make a dramatic, unplanned change (like a competitor just released a next generation product that makes yours obsolete). Get Clear on the situation, before you try to come up with new solutions. (Clarity is the first step in critical thinking).
Define the Box.
Before you can think Outside-the-box”, you have to get clear on what the box is in the first place. Start with two questions;
What are our current assumptions about the situation?
Follow up with the question;
Why are those our assumptions?
This will lead to a discussion about information that forms the basis of your current assumptions (we call these Facts, Observations and Experiences).
Now that you are clear on the situation, and have a current understanding of the current thinking, i.e. the box, you are ready to think Outside-the-box.
Think Outside-the-box by pushing on the very boundaries of the Box: Challenge the very assumptions you are currently making. Ask,
What if the assumptions we are making are not valid … how does that change our thinking?
What if we never had that experience … how does that change our thinking? What other experiences are there … how does that change our thinking?
What new assumptions might we make and why?
Look at the improbable. Don’t dismiss the unlikely outright. Don’t let constraints stop the conversation. Ask;
What assumptions can we make, that may seem very unlikely, but if we can make them likely, how does that change our thinking?
Is there a piece of the improbable, that is actually probable … how does that change our thinking?
Bring it back. Ask;
Based on the defined current box, and our new box based on new assumptions, what new actions / solutions should we consider? Then have a conversation about what's next.
Many great solutions for problems can be obtained using plain old inside-the-box critical thinking. However occasionally, try an Outside-the-box discussion. Try this on problems such as; How can we improve our productivity, our quality, our communication? Move on to problems such as improving customer satisfaction, producing new solutions, increasing profitability, etc. For the best result, try this with a group of 4 or 5 people. Outside the box conversations will yield some new ideas, and every once in a while, uncover a breakthrough.