Should You Really Think Out of the Box?

Should You Really Think Out of the Box?

How many times have you been encouraged to "think out of the box"? It generally means you should challenge the status quo, innovate, disrupt and a multitude of other buzzwords. For example, here are 3 ways to do it.

But, there are hazards to out of the box thinking:

1. If you are a bad rebel instead of a good rebel, it will result in career suicide.

2. Whether you are an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, you will need a supportive ecosystem to make you ideas work. Building a new one from scratch takes lots of time, money and courage. It’s impossible to point to any one thing that tipped the scale, because what drove impact was an ecosystem of connections between partners, suppliers and customers who needed to learn how to collaborate effectively. That has far less to do with technology than it does with forging meaningful human relationships and it takes time.

3. Most innovations are evolutionary, not revolutionary: Building and modifying existing predicates.

4. Thinking out of the box will usually result in followers thinking you are out of your mind and will stiffen their resistance to change.

5. It doesn't work. The term "out-of-the-box thinking" came from solutions to the so-called "nine dot problem" -- where there are three rows of three dots and the problem is to connect all the dots with just four lines. The solution lies in drawing a line that goes outside the imaginary "box" formed by those nine dots. "Thinking out of the box" has come to mean thinking of a solution that is somehow outside of what you already know and do, coming up with something wholly new. Sounds great, but does it work? Studies have shown that, when you tell people to think out of the box in solving the nine-dot problem, they don't do any better than when you just let them go at it. Pushing people harder to think out of the box doesn't work. Many of the revolutionary ideas in the technologies and arts don't come from the person who solves the problem by thinking out of their box. It comes from the person who has seen the right solution already somewhere else -- who has other boxes to think in.

6. Ideas are not inventions are not innovations. Most of the latter are old ideas used in a new way or with a new or different business model.

7. We live in a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Making a successful product that is entirely new is probably more about dumb luck and timing than imaginative out of the box thinking. New product failures speak volumes.

8. If you get too far out ahead of your troops you are likely to be confused as the enemy.

9. The challenge is to spend the right amount of time on the now, the next and new.

10. “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”- Yogi Berra

Don't get boxed out by out of the box thinking. Innovation is about connecting dots, even if if some of them are outside of the imaginary box. Sickcare cannot be fixed from inside so maybe you need to look in someone else's box.

9 Dots Puzzle Solution

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs on Twitter@ArlenMD and Co-editor of Digital Health Entrepreneurship.

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  • Teisha Lee

    Always watch what your competitors are doing

  • Anthony Hughes

    You really know how to make sense!

  • Samantha Pritchard


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Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA

Former Contributor

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is a professor emeritus of otolaryngology, dentistry, and engineering at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Colorado School of Public Health and President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs at He has created several medical device and digital health companies. His primary research centers around biomedical and health innovation and entrepreneurship and life science technology commercialization. He consults for and speaks to companies, governments, colleges and universities around the world who need his expertise and contacts in the areas of bio entrepreneurship, bioscience, healthcare, healthcare IT, medical tourism -- nationally and internationally, new product development, product design, and financing new ventures. He is a former Harvard-Macy fellow and In 2010, he completed a Fulbright at Kings Business, the commercialization office of technology transfer at Kings College in London. He recently published "Building the Case for Biotechnology." "Optical Detection of Cancer", and " The Life Science Innovation Roadmap". He is also an associate editor of the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology and Technology Transfer and Entrepreneurship and Editor-in-Chief of Medscape. In addition, He is a faculty member at the University of Colorado Denver Graduate School where he teaches Biomedical Entrepreneurship and is an iCorps participant, trainer and industry mentor. He is the Chief Medical Officer at and and Chairman of the Board at GlobalMindED at, a non-profit at risk student success network. He is honored to be named by Modern Healthcare as one of the 50 Most Influential Physician Executives of 2011 and nominated in 2012 and Best Doctors 2013.

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