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Posted: 2008-01-09 / Author: Jan Beeton

Thinking Out The Box – Second Nature For Entrepreneurs?


Early in life we all learnt a lot about how to think creatively (even if we don’t know it) through the games we played as children. Remember the word-association game? Well, surprise, surprise, associating words with other words and ideas is also a good technique for creative thinking by adults and entrepreneurs. In his book ‘Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and find Your Great Ideas’, Jordan Ayan demonstrates word/idea association as an important technique in idea capture.

So, what DO we mean by’ thinking out the box’? What is the thinking, and what is the box we always talk about, but may never really think about what we mean? I got to thinking about these questions to begin this article – some of the ideas I came up with in my word/idea association were: Jack in the Box, Pandora’s Box, ‘boxed in’ ‘in a box’, my house is a box, wondering, being curious, curiosity killed the cat, let the cat out of the bag –hey, how did the cat get into this?


A Jack in the Box is a favourite toy of children over the ages – I got to thinking about why this is.

when it springs out of the box, the Jack in the Box creates an element of surprise, positive energy, fresh air, fun, newness, something not known, something new, not seen before, something that was hidden and suddenly seen. This is exactly the same as the energising experience of inspiration and of new thoughts springing out of your head, isn’t it?

Pandora’s Box is a different idea – and maybe a bit like letting the cat out the bag – ad even curiosity killed the cat- there is an element of risk introduced here, and even danger - the idea that newness involves risk, taking a chance, and even failure.

But we also say ’no pain, no gain’, ‘you get nowhere in life without taking a risk’, and so on. So, thinking out the box is also about risk and a lack of certainty in experiencing something not seen before, or doing something not done before. One of the sure-fire characteristics of a successful entrepreneur is the willingness to take a risk to create something new, to innovate new products and services which meet, or even create, needs and wants, and/or new markets.

Being boxed in, in a box or living in a box, implies a lack of (mental) space, a lack of newness, things remaining the same, doing the same things, inertia, a lack of energy, or progress, expansion and growth. How do we get outside being boxed in – by beginning to think I new ways, particularly by wondering. What happens when you say “I wonder if, or why, or how…………..?” Your mind starts to function in a realm of possibilities rather than current realities. In Guy Finley’s book entitled ‘Wonder’, he talks about the mental process of wondering as paying attention, looking at what is going on inside and around you (and your business). It’s looking at everything with a keen interest, and discovering what is beyond your present understanding.


§ Associating words with other words and ideas spontaneously brings insights, creative thoughts and (new) understanding

§ ‘Thinking’ in this context is more wondering, discovering what is currently beyond your understanding

§ Mental leaping leads to innovation

Try the activity below to really get to grips with what I am saying.

Using six match-sticks and a small piece of Pre-stick, make FOUR triangles, exactly equal in size, with NO spaces between them. Whilst you are doing the activity, reflect on your thinking processes and what you do to find the solution. Make notes of every thought and action. Then look at your notes, and write down what you discover about how you approached this activity. Look particularly for thought processes and actions which blocked your potential for creative imagining.

(The solution will be given in Jan’s article next month on marketing research)

For me the main lesson when I first did this activity was: There are new dimensions in thinking out the box –we need to take mental leaps to see new solutions.


§ Be willing to play with your thoughts, to follow your ideas and trust your instincts
§ Make a regular practice of ‘what if…….’ thinking
§ Resist ‘groupthink’ ( agreeing with the group because you are not able to stand out on your own)
§ Think solutions, not problems


§ Look at opposites What if instead of being bad for your teeth, sweets were actually good for them? Could someone develop sweets that prevented tooth decay and perhaps even strengthened teeth, and still taste good?

§ Make things bigger or smaller Look at things and ask how they could be bigger or smaller and what the advantages would be. As an example, how could a refrigerator be smaller, and how would that be useful?

§ Mentally move things around Look at the exhaust fan in the bathroom and imagine it over the shower. This immediately suggests that there might be less steaming up of the mirror if the fan was closer to the source of the steam.

§ Follow silly ideas to see where they go I was sitting wondering what would happen if two strong gusts of wind going in opposite directions were to meet. Would they cancel each other out, cause massive turbulence, or what? This triggered the thought of a car with high-powered fans that send a sheet of air from the front end out to the roof above the windshield. Could this create a virtual surface that would make the car more aerodynamic?

About the Author:
Ms Jan Beeton is a Managing Consultant and owner of QED Development Consulting.
The consultancy seeks positive transformation in the socio-economic realities of the marginalised and poor in South Africa. Find out more about Jan on her website

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