The phrase "thinking outside the box" is about looking for solutions which are not obvious. Edward de Bono calls it "lateral thinking" - making associations across normal lines of thought. It's a great way to come up with new solutions. It's also terrific fun.
When inventors are asked about how they came up with their inventions, almost invariably the response is that it just happened. All of a sudden, the coin dropped, often at the most unexpected moments, and definitely not always while trying to solve the problem. It's funny how the mind works, and how it can go off in creative directions when least expected, or when one has almost resigned to not being able to solve a problem at all. Brainstorm sessions are a way to try to trigger the process, but on a different level, i.e. within a group of people.
Thinking outside the box is sheer fun. The experience might well be similar to the adrenaline rush that presumably happens in sporting events and when risk is involved. Attacking an open problem and actually finding a solution can be exhilarating. Mind over matter. Man over machine. Order in chaos. Intuition being right.
As a kid, I used to dream of radio-controlled planes. And although I did build planes and gliders, I never could afford the RC side of things, and had to make do with catalogues describing that oh so nifty technology with which one could control equipment at a distance. At one point, I started reading books about how RC works - quite primitive, with pulse modulation and relays being state of the art, and a receiver made up of discrete components and transistors. One day, it occurred to me that one might use tones to signal a rate, such as the amount of rudder of throttle to apply. Many many days later, dozens of scribbled notes later, I went through the roof - because it could work! I had "invented" proportional radio-control... and it really did not matter one bit that I subsequently found out that it already existed. The point was not being first, or doing something unique, but of having crossed my own barriers, and ending up beyond what Ithought was possible. I had briefly torn down the boundaries of my own box.
Soon thereafter, I found out about computers - which back then were huge and quite clumsy. And boy, what a playground to create and construct, with no physical limits or boundaries in sight. I was hooked.
Computers are not about taking monotonous chores over (just think how much monotony has been added to the work of so many people due to computers!). They are about doing new things. Such as word-processing. And the web. And drawing with the mouse. And spreadsheets. And MP3s.
None of those uses would have come about without some serious lateral thinking. None of it can be explained as a consequence of extending what existed. No amount of effort or money can lead to such breakthroughs. No amount of random trials would either. No, just that little spark that triggers people to try something different. Against better judgement at times. Stubborn, even.
Jon Bentley wrote a book called "Programming Pearls" , which is a tribute to the ingenuity that goes into solving problems well, and in simple ways. The world of computer programming is filled with such opportunities, and now that computing is available to so many people, the potential for creative expression is boundless.
I hope an increasing number of people will get used to thinking outside the box, and appreciate its value.
But independent thinking is only half the story - staying outside the box is at least as essential. There are many problems which can be solved in different ways. The first one found is not always the best. Nor the most publicized one. Nor the best marketed one. Nor the most profitable one. Once a problem has a solution, that should not be a reason to stop probing in critical and new ways.
Yet that's exactly what the IT world is doing, over and over again. There is a winner, there is a massively successful software package, and the goal is to become the market leader and through economy of scale take all breathing space away from any competition. Standards are the real game. And embrace and extend. And "owning" the protocols. And controlling the desktop through the operating system. The fact that software can be replicated infinitely in no time, means that adoption of technology can take place (be orchestrated?) with an impact unseen in any traditional production process. The "boxes" which are currently being constructed have boundaries and shapes which are more and more delineated by business goals. Not customer requirements, not personal interests, not even "value" in some dimension or other. Never before has innovation in the IT world been as much at risk as it is today.
Never has the need for thinking outside the box been stronger. To offer alternatives which expose the immense opportunities IT offers. On today's computers, even on yesterday's, in fact.
I challenge every software developer to look for the way out. There is a risk: it's so much more fun outside the box, that you may end up becoming addicted. If you do: welcome, I'm delighted you made it!
© April 2002