Thinking outside the box has almost become cliché today. People are often asked to do so whether it is at work or in their personal lives. But what exactly is the box? Why is it bad? How does one get (and think) out of it?

Mainly the phrase implies that people are set in their ways and tend to do everything according to the same pattern that leaves no room for creativity and innovation. This is why it is deemed negative. As for getting out of it, the recipes are multiple and range from rather surprising improvisation techniques to mindfulness and meditation.


Read more: Considering mindfulness training for increased employee productivity


In psychological terms, the box is actually a mental model, one developed over time (often with no small effort). In essence, it is an explanation of how something works — a concept, framework, or worldview that is constantly in the back of one’s mind to help with understanding the relationship between things. Ultimately, a mental model is a personal belief of how the world works.

Mental models act as guides both for perception and behavior. One common example is supply and demand — a mental model that helps with understanding how the economy works. Entropy in its turn is a mental model that is designed to explain how disorder and decay work.

Mental models are systems that help us function in the world

Basically, mental models are great because they are what keep people functioning in the world, help with solving problems and moving forward. It is good and healthy to have a system and abide by it.

However, real progress comes from the ability to not only move forward with a certain model but moving forward from that particular model.

Some of the smartest people in the world have understood this and made great efforts to broaden their (already rather large) horizons. One such example is Richard Feynman. He was a brilliant American theoretical physicist, known for his study of the path integral formulation, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and particle physics.

Now perhaps when I get around to developing a new mental model I may even figure out what all these are but I think we can all agree they sound pretty impressive. The Nobel Prize committee definitely thought so in 1965.

Even if he was very successful in his research, Feynman sought to see everything from a different perspective so he took a sabbatical year and went to work in a biology lab with a close friend. The major shift also led him to some rather extraordinary findings.

They show reality but the picture is incomplete

While all mental models show reality from only one point of view, there is some truth in each of them and they can be very functional. It is impossible, however, to solve every single problem using the same algorithm – it’s like the saying goes “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

Constantly relying on a restrictive set of thinking tools is like being trapped in a mental straightjacket. The cognitive range of motion is limited and as a result, poor decisions and a certain functional inability will occur. The potential for finding solutions is determined by the wideness of thinking patterns – if there is but one, chances are slim.

Unleashing the full potential of the human brain means collecting a range of mental models – the secret is that one can never truly think outside of a proverbial box but the number of boxes they can switch between are a good indicator of possible success. In order to have the ability to genuinely look at something from various (sometimes even contrasting) perspectives, one should gather a lot more tools next to that solitary hammer.

The quest for more boxes

Obviously, not everybody has the possibility or the time to take a whole year and work in an altogether different field just to gain a new vision. There are, however, ways of acquiring new mental models for the non-Nobel Prize-winning person.

Having one mental model is like seeing with only one eye – the picture is real but not compete.

There’s a better image when regarded through both eyes and a much more meaningful one once the eyes are taught what to look for. It’s the same with the acquisition of mental models.

It happens through reading extensively from books with quality content, studying the fundamentals of seemingly unrelated fields and listening to people with wildly different life experiences. With today’s technology it’s always easy to find those who have the same values and preferences as we do – the social media pages constantly suggest organizations and products that we seem to have something in common with.

That’s why developing a new mental model will have to start with a search – it’s not something that just comes to a person at one click of the mouse. Though a deeply personal thing, this quest can and should be backed up by L&D professionals within a company. Since training programs often generate minor transformations, it is essential for those in charge of developing them to start with deeper issues, such as the mental models. Mental models are the basis of our behaviors and are therefore the true keys to the changes and adoption of new behaviors.

Offering employees a very wide range of e-learning materials and encouraging them to take the time (even out of office hours if at all possible) to pursue something completely different and seemingly unrelated to their jobs will lead to greater autonomy, innovation, and engagement.

Any company not wanting that should definitely look at changing its mental model.

Stay tuned!

Keep an eye on the MATRIX Blog, as next time we’ll dive into a few examples of mental models for learning and why L&D professionals need to pay attention to them.

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