Seriously -- that’s about when the phrase originated, referring to a puzzle that challenged people to connect nine dots arranged in a box with just four straight lines. It can be done, but your pencil has to literally draw outside the box (twice, to be specific).
But, like everything from the 1970s, we have evolved. Today, let’s consider the benefits of not only staying inside the box but using the box to inspire a greater level of creative thinking.
The Apollo 13 space mission is a great example of using constraints to enable a greater level of creativity. The astronauts involved with this mission were definitely inside a very tight box. This rocket was bound for a moon landing until, on April 13, 1970, a spark from an exposed wire in an oxygen tank caused a fire on board. In an instant, the mission of the three astronauts on board, and the many scientists in NASA’s Houston control center, changed from lunar landing to a nearly-impossible safe return home.
Commander Jim Lovell couldn’t just turn the rocket around and fire it back to Earth. The astronauts were now in the desperate situation of not having enough power, so they turned off all non-essential systems. The constraints they faced were life-threatening, and they inspired creative thinking at its most impressive.
Prime crew member Ken Mattingly worked tirelessly in the Apollo simulator to recreate the astronauts’ situation and experimented within the constraints of severely limited power and water. He configured and reconfigured ways the space craft could safely burn through the Earth’s atmosphere without enough of these vital resources.
It’s hard to argue that Mattingly's level of creativity wasn’t increased because he was forced to think harder by the walls of that box. And, of course, thanks largely to Mattingly’s ingenuity, Lovell and the rest of the crew were rewarded with their now-famous safe landing.
While every industry faces specific challenges, a sales organization’s constraints will most often involve:
Time: A deadline must be met.
Organization Limitations: The talent, manpower, or policies of the organization limit what can be achieved for the customer.
Supplier Capabilities: Providers have practical limitations including the amount of product they can provide to the organization and how quickly they can provide it.
Cost: Labor and material costs limit the company’s margins.
Quota: The organization must reach a performance objective.
Customer Requirements: Customers have high expectations and performance hurdles.
Competitive Environment: Competitors’ capabilities sometimes dictate what the customers want.
Price: The customer or market values the offer at a certain dollar amount.
When was the last time you or your team came up with an idea to solve a customer’s problem? What else could you have done for the customer if you hadn’t been limited by their budget or other constraints? Your team might have had some great ideas that were dismissed by the customer for a range of reasons. But when it ran into those constraints, the team probably pushed a little harder and came up with something more creative that it might not have otherwise developed.
While we appreciate the nine-dot-box puzzle for introducing us to the concept of thinking outside the box, we’re in a more creative place now.
Originally published Mar 10, 2016 6:30:00 AM, updated June 15 2021