Learning to be creative: Thinking inside the box!

Can you learn to be more creative? Of course you can!  There are many well-researched,  well-used techniques for being creative and generating creative ideas. The most popular one is probably brainstorming.  Brainstorming is pretty simple.  You present a problem or situation, and start coming up with ideas. The goal is to get as many ideas as possible, and the one rule is that there is absolutely no judgement–any idea is a good idea at the brainstorming stage. Even if the idea is crazy, zany, and way “Out of the box”, it gets recorded as an idea.

Thinking Out of the Box

That phrase ‘out of the box” thinking has been popularized in recent years as well.  I take it to mean that there is value in having ideas that are out of the ordinary, not like everyone else’s ideas, something really original. If you are brainstorming, you will get a lot of ideas. It seems as if the more ideas you have, the more chance you have of getting ideas that are “Out of the box”. So is there a way to generate more ideas when brainstorming, to raise the chances of getting an idea that is “Out of the box”?

There sure is!  To get out of the box thinking, paradoxically thinking inside the box can be helpful! In a recent study, participants were asked to come up with rhyming couplets for the inside of greeting cards.  The control group did not have any restrictions, and were told to just start writing. The experimental group was given a word bank of  nouns and verbs with which to start creating. The experimental group that was provided the word bank outperformed the control group in every trial. Giving them a start, a direction, something to start with always helped the creative process.

I grew up on a farm. Sometimes we would let the calves out of the barn to frolic and play.  While we gave them freedom, we also had the area fenced in, so that they would not run away or get lost.  What we did is what I call “Set them loose, then fence them in”. That is something that can help with creativity. Giving a structure to an unstructured activity like brainstorming has been shown to be very effective in generating ideas.


The goal of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible.  I think this has merit. If you engage in brainstorming with your group, you will get lots of ideas.  Engaging in brainstorming with a group can also reinforce the belief that there are multiple ways to solve any problem, and multiple solutions are always present. Most of those solutions will not be practical or ones that we would want to implement, but the side benefit of the group beginning to believe in the creative powers, and that the culture in the organization is one that promotes creativity, is the real pay off.

So how can we brainstorm, and “Think out of the box”, but still be in the box? How can we set everyone loose, but still fence them in to get more idea?  Here are three ways!

The process of traditional way of brainstorming is as follows:

  1. Explain to the group the problem that they are solving
  2. Tell them the rules
      • Any idea is a good idea
      • The more ideas the better, the crazier the better
      • Absolutely no judgements on any idea, no matter how off the wall the idea may seem

Thinking Inside the Box

Here are three other ways to brainstorm that keep people “In the box” a little bit more and give them a little more structure to help them along.

Brainstorming 6-3-5

When brainstorming with a group, try to put them inside this box. It is a regular session of brainstorming with the usual rules, but this time, it’s a little more structure. Here’s how you do Brainstorming 6-3-5

  1. Each member of your group has a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Each of the participants is tasked with writing 3 ideas down on their piece of paper.
  3. As soon as they are done, they pass it to the person to their right hand side.
  4. This continues for 6 rounds, which will generate 108 ideas.
  5. The facilitator then gets rid of duplicate ideas, and looks for ideas that form around a single idea.
  6. The group the chooses the best solution by voting!

Hit 100

This idea is simple.

  1.  Every participant gets a sheet of  paper and a pen.
  2. The timer is set for 15 minutes.
  3. Each participant is given the task to try to hit 100 ideas in that 15 minutes.

Because that is a big task for 15 minutes, it is a great exercise. With the participant so focused on generating ideas, they will be very much in the present moment, and a state of flow can often occur in these conditions.. Flow is a judgement free zone where ideas just start flowing, when the judgement is non-existent. That will make this seemingly impossible task more manageable.

The Pen Never Ends

I call this box “The Pen Never ends.  The procedure is similar:

  1.  Every participant gets a sheet of  paper and a pen.
  2. The timer is set for 15 minutes.
  3. Each participant is instructed to start writing and their pen never stops moving for the entire fifteen minutes. If they aren’t writing ideas, they are writing about the problem, the variables in the problem, possible solutions, reasons some ideas will work, and some ideas won’t work.   The important thing is that they never stop writing, and they never stop thinking about solutions to the problem.

The facilitator should remind the participants to not have any concerns about grammar, sentence structure, spelling or anything else that will slow them down. There is something magical that happens in the process of writing.  Very often, connections that aren’t made when simply speaking about the problem can emerge when writing.

Good luck thinking inside the box! If you want to learn more about being creative, check out our article on challenging assumptions, or start reading our book on creativity!

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