Whenever putting out a hiring ad, companies ask for innovative people who can think outside of the box. Creativity seems to have become the number one prerequisite for pretty much everything. The ‘box’, with its implication of rigidity and squareness, symbolizes constrained and unimaginative thinking.

However, looking beyond the metaphor, linguistic history teaches us that, when coined, the expression referred to an actual box. Very popular in the sixties, Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers) included a puzzle, known as the ‘Nine Dots Puzzle‘. It was posed like this: “Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes.”

So how exactly can one think outside the box?

Edward de Bono once said

You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

He also came up with a method that provides a deliberate, systematic process that will result in innovative thinking. In his work he divides thinking into two modes.

  • He calls one vertical thinking<, which uses the processes of logic – the traditional go-to method.
  • He calls the other lateral thinking, which involves disrupting the usual reasoning sequence and reaching the solution from another angle.

He proved that creative thinking is not as much a talent as it’s a skill that can be taught. It empowers people by strengthening their own natural abilities.

This leads to improved creativity and innovation generating higher productivity and a bigger profit. What business would not want that?

Thinking outside the rectangular screen – a modern puzzle

We have already established that lateral thinking can be learned. When it comes to e-learning this might seem a bit more difficult, since people are prone to thinking in a certain manner and going for solutions that have proved effective in the past.

The first thing to do when attempting to develop creative thinking is to get the learner to disrupt his or her general way of reaching a conclusion. This can be achieved with the use of clever puzzles such as: “Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?”.1

A series of such brain teasers will definitely get the learner off the usual path of reasoning and on a creative journey.

Simulating the reality of another’s shoes

The use of realistic scripts and simulations are also beneficial since they bring about not only information but also generate emotion. In this way online learners get the chance to explore and analyze all the aspects of a given situation: the ability to take part in life-like situation, get acquainted with realistic e-learning characters and get all the information they need to find a solution.

These interactive exercises encourage online learners to move beyond their comfort zone and see things from a fresh perspective. They can investigate every aspect of the situation, which gives them the power to challenge their cognitions and make different decisions than they would generally do.

Another perk of using fun, easy to remember life-like characters is that it facilitates the “step inside the shoes” exercise. By asking online learners to take on the role of someone else, such as a public figure, a well-known fictional character or even someone from the company’s hierarchy, the exercise gives the opportunity of really seeing things from somebody else’s perspective.

It’s a fun and effective way to set aside one’s own assumptions and beliefs and adopt those of another. The point of this walking in someone else’s shoes for a short bit is to encourage those engaged in the course beyond their usual boundaries. They are given a glimpse of how personal opinions and experiences influence the way we perceive things.

Mapping. Mind mapping

If the above-described exercise tends to be rather conceptual, the use of mind maps in online training not only facilitates lateral thinking but also brings a much needed visual component.

A key word or the given challenge appears mid screen and the learners have to come up with the branches that explore possible outcomes or solutions. Since it starts with very little (but crucial) information the learners can add words, images, numbers, and color, making it more memorable and enjoyable to make and assess.

Since mind mapping links and group concepts together through natural associations, it helps coming up with more ideas and finding different approaches of the same situation. One single screen can show an overview of a complex case while also holding large amounts of information.

The bottom line is: if you want employees who are creative and have the capacity to think outside the box, help them. Designing e-learning sessions in such a way as to unlock innovative potential can go a long way and show in product design, customer satisfaction and profit.


1The fireman is the only man in the room. The rest of the poker players are women.

Author: Roxana M

Roxana is a learning and development professional with over 10 years experience in corporate training.