“Thinking Outside the Box”

“Thinking Outside the Box”

August 2015

By Wayne M. Crane, Summit Alternative Investments

“Thinking outside the box” is an overused cliché in the business sector today. I was reminded of the term recently when one of our new business development colleagues came up with an idea. She discovered that we could utilize the services of high quality, well educated, and skilled people in Bangladesh at a fraction of the cost of our resources. We needed some market research assistance temporarily, looking for a way to save costs, and desired a project completed quickly. The solution seemed simple enough,  but it clearly involved some “outside of the box thinking.”

This got me pondering where the term came from in the first place. I have always been curious about idioms, jargon, and terminology. “She is going to have a cow.”  “Skating on thin ice.”  Where do all of these idioms originate?  The catchphrase, or cliché, “thinking outside the box” has become widely used in business, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has been referenced in some advertising slogans. To think outside the box is to look further; not discerning of the obvious, but thinking of the things beyond them. The origins of the phrase are obscure, but it was popularized in part because of a nine-dot puzzle that was introduced in 1969. Management consultants have claimed that the use of the nine-dot puzzle in consultancy circles stems from the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle was used in-house.

Thinking outside the box






Leave it to Disney to have the distinction of all things different. I remember working and attempting to solve the puzzle as a young person. The challenge is to draw four straight lines that go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper. If you were using a pencil, you must start from any position and draw the lines one after the other without taking your pencil off the page. Each line starts where the last line finishes. It is not as easy as it looks.

I think the best example and the oldest lore relating to thinking outside the box dates back to about 330 BC. When I was a Boy Scout and a Boy Scout leader we learned of the Gordian knot and the legend that accompanies it. For people the world over, the Gordian knot represents the difficult, the intractable and the insolvable problem. Academics, consultants and management gurus trivialize business problems by calling them “challenges.”  This softer word is supposed to motivate subordinates and keep them happily working. Business is war after all. Victory comes through struggle. It requires cunning and guile and superior strategy. Only the best thinkers deserve the spoils of this modern war we call “business.”

In ancient Macedonia, thinking was much the same as it is today. Little kingdoms fought bitterly for their lands. Pretenders rose and fell. No one had a vision: none had a plan, and all was a struggle. Except for one–one gained his rule easily.

He was Midas, the poor homeowner. Day by day Midas struggled just to get by. Each day was a “challenge” for Midas. He lived in a marshy area of Asia Minor then called Phrygia. Lore has it that years of civil unrest and aimless wandering of the Phrygians had led the elders to call a meeting of the high council to decide which warring faction would rule next. An ancient oracle had foretold that a man with a wagon would eventually come and end their constant quarreling. Midas wandered into town with his ox-cart and wagon while the high council met discussing the oracle’s prediction. The oracle’s prophecy had come true, and Midas was appointed king. (Also where “Midas Touch” comes from – everything he touched turned to gold. He was an exceptional financial king!)

As a reminder of his good fortune, to thank the gods for his rule, and to celebrate the end of aimless wandering for the Phrygians, Midas erected a shrine and dedicated his wagon to Zeus. Instead of being yoked to an ox, Midas placed his wagon in the center of the Acropolis affixed to a pole with a large knot. Curiously, the knot was an intricate and complex Turkish knot, having no ends exposed. Hundreds of tightly interwoven thongs of cornel-bark made the knot an impressive centerpiece for the shrine. There it remained as an important symbol for the Phrygians.

Month after month the bark hardened, and stories grew up around the shrine. It was eventually moved and housed near the temple of Zeus Basileus in an ancient city called Gordium, ruled by Midas’ father, Gordius. Gordius, being the proud father that he was, encouraged the lore about his son’s now famous shrine. People speculated as to its purpose. Most regarded it as a curious puzzle. Eventually, an oracle foretold that whoever loosed the Gordian knot would lord over the whole of Asia. The lore grew and grew.

Over the years, people living near Gordium looked upon their puzzle relic with great pride. It became quite a tourist attraction and generated lots of revenue for local business. Residents considered it the duty of every traveler to visit their shrine and attempt to solve their puzzle. They regarded it as extremely unlucky for visitors to leave their city without trying to loosen the knot.

No one knows how many visitors attempted the puzzle of the Gordian knot. One thing remains forthright. Only one man solved it. We know him as Alexander the Great. Supposedly he took out his sword and sliced the knot….a simple solution indeed. He went on to conquer the world and rule all of Asia. Folklore states that Alexander considered his victory over the Gordian knot the most decisive battle he ever fought.

I have a pair of gold cufflinks that are Gordian knot cufflinks. I like to wear them from time to time as a reminder of this story and to prompt me to focus on “thinking outside the box.”  I am thankful for our new colleague and her ability to find simple solutions to problems that involve creative thinking. I think our organization, Summit and AmeriFirst, have a considerable capacity to assist our clients in solving problems by thinking of creative solutions. Maybe it is the cufflinks…who knows.

  • 24 Aug, 2015
  • Josh Smith

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