Thinking “outside the box” is a popular idea in the business world today.

People and organizations are told to think outside the box to stimulate creativity when they need to solve problems, streamline production, establish a new product, or develop a new process.

And it’s true that unconventional thinking often sparks creativity and innovation.

But It Takes More Than Unconventional Thinking . . .

Take Picasso, for example. Picasso was a creative artist, but his abstract work is technically sloppy. It looks like the work of a child. Picasso could sell his abstract art only because he had previously established himself as an artist who could color inside the box very well. Had he not first proven his artistic talent in the traditional way, his abstract art would have been worth much less.

Picasso used his reputation as a traditional artist to establish a new direction in art. He didn’t color outside the box — he expanded the boundaries and definition of the box.

A creative idea requires the discipline of order and structure to be valuable.

Creativity Is More Than Just Breaking the Rules . .

Similarly, Joseph Heller was able to break the rules of English grammar in his book Something Happened (Scribner, 1974) only because he was intimately familiar with them.

Having taught English at the University of South Carolina, he was a master of grammar. And only out of his expertise could he creatively exploit, expand, and redefine the boundaries of it.

If You Don’t Understand the Box, You Can’t Think Outside It . .

The suggestion that creativity lies in the ability to think outside the box is mostly nonsense. Creativity emerges from talent, ability, and discipline as an intentional effort.

Creativity involves seeing that the box itself is inadequate and developing a better one. Creativity doesn’t discard the box — it redefines it after becoming intimately familiar with it.

While a creative idea often comes unbidden out of unexpected places, discipline, study, and order are necessary to make something of it. Without these things, what passes for creativity is nonsense, and to suggest otherwise actually undermines and/or weakens the creative process.

Seek first to understand, then redefine.