Rumor has it that Charles H. Duell, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in 1899 once said “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” and recommended that the U.S. patent office be closed down. If true, clearly Charles H. Duell had a problem thinking ‘outside-the-box’.
What does it mean to think ‘outside-the-box’? I am sure each one of you has multiple examples and explanations of what this phrase means. Here is one example that I encountered recently. A few days ago, an elementary school teacher gave her students a five-word list each day and asked them to create a sentence for each of those five words. One little girl found a creative approach to the assignment. She first thought of a theme and then created sentences for each of those words that fit within that theme. To me, this demonstrated thinking ‘outside-the-box’ – a thought that acted as an outlier to those offered by her classmates.
To me, thinking ‘outside-the-box’ means not getting bogged down within an existing framework but constantly looking to extend the boundaries and in some sense trying to create new boundaries that seemed impossible before. Any successful person in any industry – be it today or historically – has had the ability to think ‘outside-the-box’ in their field at some point in time.
The high-tech industry has an abundant set of ‘outside-the-box’ examples. One of my favorites is Michael Dell’s approach to the PC industry by focusing on the most efficient delivery mechanism as a way to win the business instead of high-priced research inside the machine.
Another of my favorite examples is Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to getting independence for India using Non-Violence as a core principle.