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Recruiting outside the box thinkers

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 31st May 2017. Revised 1st November 2020.

5 min read

Thinking outside of the box downhill competitive skierWhat makes one person able to ‘think outside the box’, to improve and to do things differently, while another will do only what they are asked and what they know?

The proverbial ‘box’ is an idea suggesting that some of us are constrained (in a metaphorical box) while others can conceptualise ideas beyond our normal jobs. Those latter ‘outside the box thinkers’ can conjure up ideas that others might find a bit whacky. And yet outside-the-box thinking is considered hugely valuable by managers, because without it, firms won’t progress.

So if ‘outside the box thinking’ is valuable, how does a manager select for it in candidates?

How does a manager encourage it, and can people be trained to have it?

Problem Solving

To get answers, one must deconstruct the metaphor. One must break it down to understand what ‘outside the box thinking’ means.

Outside the box thinking is thinking differently and perhaps unconventionally about the way particular work might be done. It’s looking at work problems from a new perspective. And for some managers, it means being creative, seeking novel solutions.

People solve problems at work using their experience, skills, knowledge and, most importantly, their intelligence. All other things being equal, it’s a person’s intelligence that makes the difference between in-box thinking and outside-the-box thinking.

So, what is intelligence?

Intelligence is that personal characteristic that allows a person to tap their experience, skills and knowledge to solve a problem. Intelligence is a person’s ability to use their other attributes to reason solutions. Intelligence can be thought of as comprising three parts giving three separate abilities; verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning and abstract reasoning.


Verbal and numerical reasoning allow a person to determine solutions using language and numbers. That allows them to do the ‘normal’ job. These abilities don’t allow people to think outside the box. It’s their abstract reasoning that helps with that.

Abstract reasoning is the ability to conceptualise. It’s the ability to think of ideas beyond those already known.

A person with high abstract reasoning can think of new approaches, methods and entities, based on experience, observations and data.

Abstract reasoning also helps hugely with learning. Those with lower abstract reasoning will likely learn more by rote – by copying or by following a demonstration. Those with higher abstract reasoning will learn whole new ideas, new ways of doing things, and they’ll use data and observations to determine if the new ways are true.

Selecting Outside-the-Box Thinkers

So if it’s an outside-the-box thinker that’s wanted, managers should be sure to select for abstract reasoning at interview. The good news is that because abstract reasoning is part of intelligence and because intelligence can be measured, candidates can be tested. The general mental ability test determines, objectively, a candidate’s three reasoning abilities.

It’s worth noting that whilst managers might think they can detect outside-the-box thinking in candidates, it’s difficult to be in any way objective about this. The result would be a high degree of error in judgement with managers making decisions on gut-feel.

Of course, abstract reasoning alone doesn’t make an outside-the-box thinker. Candidates need to be able to draw on their experience, make the observations and process the present data to develop the outside-the-box ideas. Interviewing to select outside-the-box thinkers takes more than just administering an ability test.

Critically, outside-the-box thinking can be selected for. But can it be taught?

Compensating with Tools

Crystal BallThe simple answer is, no. It can’t be taught. A person’s abstract reasoning ability is substantially set in their genes and early years. Whilst other aspects of intelligence grow with experience and learning, abstract reasoning ability does not. It is however possible to apply tools to enable and exploit what abstract reasoning ability a person has.

A simple example of this is brainstorming.

Brainstorming is a technique for applying a person’s mind to a particular problem by encouraging their mind to run free. Brainstorming effectively calls on the person to park the obvious and to be a bit silly – to deliberately move out of the box and allow the more absurd ideas to be proposed. Brainstorming is most effective when done in a group where ideas can spark ideas.

The method then uses the person’s experience and knowledge to filter the absurd to find the true outside-the-box nuggets that are needed to drive progress.

It’s also possible to build a person’s experience and to teach them how to observe their world and to process the data they sense. This gives the foundation for outside-the-box thinking, but it does not inherently cause outside-the-box thinking to happen.

Recruiting Outside The Box Thinkers

So, to some extent tools like brainstorming can compensate for lack of abstract reasoning. But using these tools takes energy. Faced with a problem, a person with lower abstract reasoning must remember to invoke their tool set and select the one that best fits the problem. It’s good to use tools, but it’s no substitute for natural abstract reasoning.

So, if a manager wants outside-the-box thinking, they’d best select for it in the staff they employ.

And if you’re a manager and you’d like to know how, call us today.