Think outside the box

Most problems, like buttoning your coat or writing a quick email, can be solved quickly and simply. We use the easiest and most obvious solutions. However, in business and in conversation, the usual way can be boring and forgettable. 

If your job is to solve problems, the usual way is certainly not worth charging a lot of money.

Sometimes we need an unusual solution. Another way to say that is "lateral thinking"—you have to move in a new direction, laterally (sideways), rather than going straight as usual.

The puzzle

You can also call lateral thinking, "thinking outside the box." The phrase became popular in the 1970s in the U.S., particularly among management consultants. Businesses began to use a puzzle to test applicants' lateral thinking skills. Take a look below.

Even if you've seen the puzzle, you probably haven't discovered all the ways to solve it. There are at least four known solutions. 

Connect all 9 dots with 4 continuous, connected straight lines.

Remember, you can't pick up your pen or pencil—the lines have to be drawn continuously. Having trouble? 

The solution

Most of us see the dots as a box, with the outer dots making the walls. If we try to stay within that box, we can't solve the problem. Try thinking outside the box.

The only way to solve it is to go beyond the outer edge of the dots. With some creative thinking, there are a number of possible solutions, all of which go outside the mental box.

So, don't draw imaginary boxes around your thinking and stay in them. We live in innovative times, and employers want people with good lateral thinking skills to stay fresh and ahead of the game.

There are lots of places to find exercises in lateral thinking to improve your skill level. Here's a good place to start: The Top Ten Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Many job interview questions involve thinking outside the box, and in speaking tests like GBC, it can be useful to be impressive. Use abstract logic and surprise the listener. 

You can find more idioms in our Business Idioms course.

lateral thinking [noun]—Solving problems with a creative approach, usually by viewing the problem in a new and unusual way.