Helping your team think outside the box by putting them in a box

think outside the box

I know, it’s backward, isn’t it? You want to help your team to be more creative and think outside the box, and I’m suggesting you do it by putting them in a box. Figuratively, of course. It’s an idea I saw floated on the BBC website about 3 months into the first covid lockdown. They had a video claiming that the restrictions of operating in lockdown conditions made people more creative as a result.

But it’s not a new idea – those of us who either work in creative industries or help others to be more creative have known about this phenomenon for a long time – putting restrictions on people makes them more creative.

Creativity has become something of a buzzword over the last couple of years. As the business world begins to mold itself around the “new normal”, the most successful businesses have evolved quickly.

And those who haven’t are playing a serious game of catch-up. The problem is, it’s a competitive world out there, and no one ever got ahead by standing still.


A big problem for people is that most of us are just not very good at being creative. There are a few reasons for that (which I’m not going to go into here), but let’s just say it’s a recognised problem and something which can hold organizations back.

Fortunately, spontaneous creativity isn’t necessary, because there are some really well-established techniques that can unleash our inner Picasso.

Some of the better-known creativity techniques can have moderately good results when used with a team in a business environment. Here are a couple for you to try:

Reverse Brainstorming

Like normal brainstorming, but done backward – this is where you get people together to brainstorm how to make a problem even worse. Then you reverse the ideas and build on them as positives.

This is effective because many people struggle to be creative when faced with a “blank canvas”. It’s easy to think of ideas to do things badly, and that becomes the input to a more positive creativity discussion.

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Crawford Slip

Or what about one that’s really stood the test of time? Crawford Slip with developed by Charles Crawford in 1925, and involves writing ideas on slips of paper (or sticky notes) then sorting them out and looking for themes on which to build as a group.

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Blue Sky Thinking

Another widely-used creativity technique, this one comes in many flavours. Effectively, what we’re looking to do is to remove any self-imposed limitations on our team members. They might be thinking “I can’t do XYZ because of ABC”. But there’s not necessarily a link, so helping people to remove those restrictions can lead to more creative responses. Try asking things like:

  • What would you do if you had a magic wand?
  • What would you do if you had unlimited power and budget?
  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

These are all solid tools, and they’re helpful as creativity exercises. But one of my favourite techniques to really unleash creativity is less of a tool and more of a concept. It’s the idea that limiting people in a situation actually helps them to be creative.

Rather than Blue Sky Thinking, where we try to remove glass ceilings and self-imposed limitations, we actually proactively impose those limitations on people ourselves. It might feel counter-intuitive, but in fact, it can be really helpful in getting people to think “outside the box”.

You could say that putting people in a box is the only way to enable them to think outside of it in the first place.

Let’s imagine for a minute that you want to re-decorate your living room. You try to come up with ideas, but the best you can come up with is “go to the DIY store and buy some pretty wallpaper”.

At least, that’s all I’d come up with if you asked me to decorate. It’s not very creative, and you’re relying on the DIY store having good wallpaper or paints in stock. But what if you were to limit people’s options? How about saying:

  • You cannot visit any DIY store.

That would force people to be more creative. If it were me, I might think about going to some kind of vintage store for some posters and fabrics. And what if we impose another limitation?

  • You’ve only got 24 hours to do this.

I suppose the vintage store idea is out now as well. What would that force me to do? Do some potato printing directly onto the wall? Make something out of the contents of my recycling bin? Who knows.

The key here, though, is that these restrictions force people to become more creative than they would otherwise have been. And the living room might just look better as a result.

Let’s think about this in a business environment.

Maybe your organisation’s sales are sliding and your sales team is struggling to convert opportunities into new business. You’re the team manager, and you get everyone together in the meeting room (or on Zoom).

You run a Crawford Slip exercise which yields nothing out of the ordinary. What about putting some of the following restrictions on your sales team to spark their creativity?

What would you have to do if you only had a fortnight to increase sales?

What if face-to-face sales meetings were no longer allowed? (who’d have thought…?!)

Imagine you’re on your first day in the job and you know nothing about the company’s background – what might that force you to try?

As I said earlier, being creative on a blank canvas is tough. But putting these kinds of ideas into place can spark people’s inner creativity in a way you’ve not seen before.

When we narrow people’s focus, they naturally become more creative to overcome the problem. And if we’re looking for our business to get ahead, that’s what we need to be doing.

Neil Shorney is Chief Possibility Officer at Navanter Knowledge Bites.