Kitten in the Box

The Pitfall of Thinking Outside the Box

The adage: “Think outside the box” was taught to me at an early age. This saying was accompanied with the nine-dot puzzle.

Here are the instructions: Connect the following nine dots with only four continuous straight lines without lifting the pencil. Give it a shot!

The 9 dot puzzle. 3 by 3 dots.
The nine-dot puzzle

The Imaginary Box

I hope you got it, if not you can google the answer. Nonetheless, if you have not seen it before. There’s a high likelihood of you having this faulty idea.

The faulty idea is that the nine dots appear to form an imaginary box.

When presented the problem for the first time, most participants will only draw within the imaginary box. This imaginary box is the artificial limit that creates the primary conflict within the puzzle. Once the participant recognizes the error, the task becomes trivial.

In fact, there have been experiments by which they gave an additional visual cue. They drew a bigger box around the nine dots. So, a big box with the nine dots inside. With this additional piece, the participants found it easier to solve the problem.

The Wrong Takeaway Lesson

This puzzle was used to teach about the advantages of thinking outside the box. However, after growing up and meditating on this puzzle way too much. I’ve come to the opinion that this is the wrong takeaway lesson, and this needs to be corrected.

The actual tension of this puzzle is not about creating an innovative solution. But it’s about destroying a false notion that limits you from finding the solution. It’s about accurate and precise problem Identification.

It’s not about figuring out how to “think outside the box”. It’s about asking, “what is the box?”

“What is the box?”

This guy name Joel

A New Way to Think

When we talk about thinking out of the box, the fixation is on the solution rather than the problem. The statement encourages that we jump to ideation and immediately try to implement creative ways to solve the problem. This is our natural tendency as human beings, to act without thinking.

Yet, no matter how great the ideas are, the best answer to a poorly defined problem, will be equally poorly defined.

Here’s where “What is the box” thinking comes in to play. The emphasis is not on the solution, but it’s on the problem instead. Instead of focusing on generating ideas or enhancing features. It’s about understanding the problems and the elimination of assumptions.

Think outside the box.What is the box?
Fixated on solutionsFixated on problems
Idea GenerationInternal Introspection
Feature EnhancementAssumption Elimination
A breakdown of the two kinds of approach and their different properties

The Two Boxes

After understanding “What is the box” kind of thinking, we can even take it one step further and point out the two kinds of boxes we operate with. These two boxes are (for a lack of better terminology) the explicit box and the implicit box.

The Explicit Box

There is only a single rule in this puzzle. There can only be four continuous straight lines drawn without lifting the pencil.

This is the explicit box. The rules and parameters that are made known to all of us.

In general, all problems have some form of explicit box. When it comes to work, we have deadlines, limited hours, and finite manpower. We are aware of these constraints.

The Implicit Box

Then, there is the rule that we made up in our mind. For this puzzle, it would be that the nine dots form an imaginary box that we must draw in.

This is the implicit box. The rules and parameters that do not actually exist in the game. We create them based on our past experiences. Yet, we hold on to them tightly, sometimes unknowingly so. These rules and parameters limit our thinking by creating an artificial barrier between us and the solution.

All problems can generate an Implicit box in our mind. We place artificial constraints on ourselves. The tricky part is this, the implicit box you have is something I’ll never know and vice versa. Unless it is intentionally made known, it will always exist within the shadows of our minds limiting us.


By understanding these two distinct kinds of categories. The goal for “What is the box” thinking is to amplify explicit boxes and to eliminate all implicit boxes. It’s about crafting a comprehensive problem statement yet eliminating all false assumptions.

That means during solo brainstorming session. It’s not about generating ideas but thinking about the problem extensively first.

That means during collaboration, it is not about debating which idea is better. But it’s about surfacing problems and assumptions all at once. It’s a much more collaborative process. One person can own a solution, but everyone owns the same problem. But more importantly, a shared comprehension of the problem is created. This results in better solutions.

Back to the nine-dot puzzle. This is a better takeaway lesson than the former. The lesson is not about “thinking outside the box” it’s about thinking “what is the box?”.

I’m officially contented. It feels like a huge burden has been lifted off my pseudo-intellectual shoulders. There is huge joy in venting out on a puzzle that you feel has the wrong takeaway lesson. If you are interested in this problem, you can read it more at here and here.

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