“Outside the Box”: The Inside Story

Our Debunking Unit takes on the mother of all consultantese: the box, and how to think outside of it.

Some specimens of consultant-speak are so cliched that they have long lost any real meaning and have turned into the conversational equivalent of an “ummmm.” The most common of these may be the hoary exhortation to “think outside the box.”


Examples abound. To name but a few: In The Art of Innovation (Currency, 2001), author Tom Kelley encourages “thinking outside the box.” Variety publishes a blog called “Outside the Box,” and a USA Today headline intoned: “Muzak Thinks Outside the Box.”

“It is,” says Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, “about as cliched as it gets.”

The phrase means something like “think creatively” or “be original,” and its origin is generally attributed to consultants in the 1970s and 1980s who tried to make clients feel inadequate by drawing nine dots on a piece of paper and asking them to connect the dots without lifting their pen, using only four lines:

(Hint: You have to think outside the — oh, you know.)

Since then, books have been committed on topics from Kids Who Think Outside the Box to Evangelism Outside the Box. And this box isn’t closing: In the past year, the phrase has appeared an average of once every nine or so days in The New York Times alone.

We wondered whether thinking outside the box really does enhance creativity. To find out, we checked in with Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert in human cognition. He told us that creativity is a “very mysterious thing” that “exists in pretty much everyone” — but that there are indeed ways to improve it.


One method he has studied extensively is what he calls the Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST) — putting people into places with no light or outside stimuli. “What I’ve found,” he said, “is that far from making people crazy, moderate deprivation lowers blood pressure, improves mood, and makes people more creative.”

Does that mean a person wanting to be creative is better off thinking, say, inside a box?

Dr. Suedfeld considered this a moment, and then said, “To the extent the box keeps the outside world away — then, yes, it is better to think inside the box.”


open the kimono (v. phr.) to reveal something new and bold, usually to a client

Martin Kihn is author of House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time (Warner Business Books, 2005).