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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

A practical method for thinking outside the box

Have you ever been told “think outside the box” but then been left dumbfounded as to how to actually do that? Whether you need to solve a practical problem or innovate and come up with something creative, the following will help you think, solve and create beyond your current realm of experience.

Kepler’s genius

Kepler is best known for his work on understanding the movement of planets. But in order to come up with laws of planetary motion, he had to contend with the beliefs of his time: beliefs that the earth was stationary and celestial bodies moved around it. These bodies were believed to be powered by spirits. People in his time were burned at the stake for saying there were other sun’s with other planets rotating around them. Needless to say, he didn’t have a robust support, he didn’t have statistics and scientific facts to rely on. He had to think outside the box.

He noticed occurrences happening in the sky that didn’t fit the model he had been given of how things worked. He began trying to figure out why planets that are further away from the sun move more slowly. What was the mechanism behind this?

He thought of heat and smell, using this analogy to reason that they become weaker as they move further away from the source. Yet heat and smell can be noticed in the space between, yet planets where being affected by something that couldn’t be noticed between the sun and the planet.

He then thought of light, and how you can see it at the source and where it hits an object, but not in the space in-between. He then made further analogies, from the possibility of magnetism or something like a whirlpool in which the planets were like boats. Each time he got stuck, he thought of new analogies.

This was his mental workings for discovering what we now know as gravity. He went on to suggest the moon influenced the tides, discovered the predictable ellipses of planets around the sun and invented astrophysics. The use of analogies was one of the key elements that allowed him to think so far outside the models and limits of the science of his time.

In his writings he declared his love for analogies and recommended we make use of them too.

The potency of analogies

The use of analogies is both practical and creative. It’s an effective tool anyone can use to help think through a problem or come up with new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s a way to think outside the box, to think beyond what is already known, to see things from new angles when traditional problem solving falls short or fails.

Analogies also allow us to understand things we may have never seen. For example, molecules and particles can not be seen with the naked eye, so at school you probably learnt about them by drawing an analogy as to how they are similar to billiard balls colliding or planets in outer space rotating around the sun. Or perhaps you learnt about electrical currents (another force we can not see with our eyes) by analogy to the flow of a river.

As you can see we’ve already used analogies to great effect, but we could benefit from using them more consciously, more courageously and more often.

Analogies often use imagery. Images capture our imagination, they get the creativity juices flowing, and they are easy to remember. As the saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words.

There was a research study done in which business students were asked to list strategies that could be used to help a fictional tech company that was having trouble. Some of the students were given analogies or suggestions to consider the similarities with other companies. These students came up with more strategies. Not only that, but the more analogies they were given, the more strategies they had, and the more diverse the analogies were, the better the idea generation was.

Another study posed a medical problem to its participants. Generally only about 10% of people are able to solve it. But, given two analogies/stories that have deep structural similarities, 80% solved the problem. We might have a tendency to push aside the creative and unpredictable aspect of using analogies to solve problems, but that outside the box strategy may be the very thing we need most.

Using analogies 101

One of the cornerstones in using analogies effectively, is to think of analogies that are outside of your domain. For example, if you’re dealing with an architectural problem, rather than looking for analogies within architecture, look for analogies in completely different domains such as chemistry, psychology, history, anthropology, the natural world. Look to concepts such as productivity, cooperation/competition, alliance etc Be broad and bold in your approach. The more analogies you have and the more varied and different the analogies you use, the better your results will be. Ideally, see if you can find analogies that are vastly different at the surface level, but hold deeper structural similarities. This is very counter intuitive. But give it a try before playing it safe.

One of the most cited studies on problem solving (which brought together scientists from many different fields) found that being able to determine the deep structure of problems before choosing a strategy to solve the problem was key to success. So before jumping in and trying to solve something, before grinding away with “hard work”, before getting carried away with a single analogy, explore broadly, consider things outside your domain, engage your curiosity.

You can also use Tapping to remove stress and regulate your nervous system so that you can think more clearly and be more open to new possibilities.

The pitfall of knowledge

The use of analogies is particularly useful when we’re in situations we haven’t encountered before (which will become more and more common as the world changes at ever greater speed). If you’re a cafe owner and you need to decide how many tomatoes you need to buy, having specific knowledge of how many tomatoes you usually need, the weather forecast, public holidays ect (and how those factors affect sales) will help you make a better decision.

But if you’re an architect and there’s a new client with a new project and there are things that are different from what you’ve done before - thinking laterally, thinking by analogy as opposed to getting more and more information and knowledge could save you from some big and costly mistakes.

For example, there was an outside consulting team that was asked to assess the accuracy of a firm's plans. They predicted that a construction project would cost millions more than what the firm had originally thought. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty details, the consulting team used analogies and lateral thinking. They looked at other examples that might have been different on the surface, but were similar at a deep structural level. When the construction was complete, the consulting team was right. Unfortunately this is not a lone incident as about 90% of major infrastructure projects worldwide go over budget.

We often think that having lots of information on a particular problem or situation is helpful (and it can be), but there’s more to the story. For example, studies have shown that if you try to predict an election or a horse race, the more information you learn (such as the specific qualities of a horse or the background of a politician), the more likely you are to predict that the scenario you are investigating will occur. Conversely, studies have shown that when you find analogies that cause you to think more broadly, you will make a better prediction, and have improved decision making.

Yet another study showed that people ranked a university better if they were told specifics about some of the science departments that were ranked in the top 10 nationally, than if they were simply told that all of the science departments were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

This ability to predict outcomes was even taken to the movie industry where films that “should” do well sometimes flop, and small films can become box office hits. In the experiment, movie goers were given basic information on a movie, as well as a list of past movies, and asked them to draw analogies between the two. They compared the predictions of these movie goers with a mathematical model that looked at immense amounts of information to predict how well the upcoming movies would do.

The results?

The movie goers who had simply used analogies, were far better at predicting how well upcoming films would do than a high tech computer model filled with detailed information and immense amounts of past movies to compare to. Most moviegoers in the experiment were only off by 2% - 4%.

Having specific information may be the very thing that prevents us from making a good decision.

Be careful of your analogies

The kinds of analogies you use can have a dramatic impact on the kind of solution you come up with.

One study asked students how to respond in a fictional situation in which a country was under attack. One group was given analogies relating to World War II, while another group was given analogies relating to Vietnam. The ones with analogies relating to World War II were much more likely to choose violence and war as a way to solve the problem. The group given analogies relating to Vietnam were much more likely to go for diplomacy and the avoidance of violence.

This kind of study has been replicated many times with different situations and have found similar results. That is why it’s important to not only have multiple analogies, but have them from diverse fields of study. The idea is to think laterally and think outside the box, not repeat history and go with the flow.


Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialised world by David Epstein.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

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