out of the box

1) "Out of the box" is an expression that describes nonconformal, creative thinking. The term is used as an adverb to describe the thinking or as an adjective to describe the ideas. The term is said to derive from a famous puzzle created by early 20th century British mathematician Henry Ernest Dudeney, in which someone is asked to interconnect nine dots in a three-by-three grid by using four straight lines drawn without the pencil leaving the paper. In order to be successful, the puzzle solver has to realize that the boundries of the dot array are psychological. The only way to solve the puzzle is to extend the lines beyond the artificial boundry created by the nine dots. One also thinks of the expression "boxed-in," or having reduced choices. In the fast-paced world of information technology, employers often say they are looking for someone who "thinks out of the box." Older, related but really different terms include blue sky, far out, and off the wall. A variation is "outside the box."

As you might expect, the term "in the box" is sometimes used to describe conformal thinking. For example, in a recent magazine article about MP3 and music pirating, a manager of some music groups is quoted as saying of major label recording companies who have been slow to adapt to the Internet, "They're always thinking inside of the box."

2) "Out of the box" is also used as a synonym for "off the shelf," meaning a ready-made software, hardware, or combination package that meets a need that would otherwise require a special development effort.

This was last updated in September 2005

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