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It was an appealing and apparently convincing message.
Although studying creativity is considered a legitimate scientific discipline nowadays, it is still a very young one. One of Guilford’s most famous studies was the nine-dot puzzle.
Guilford was one of the first academic researchers who dared to conduct a study of creativity.
The symmetry, the beautiful simplicity of the solution, and the fact that 80 percent of the participants were effectively blinded by the boundaries of the square led Guilford and the readers of his books to leap to the sweeping conclusion that creativity requires you to go outside the box.
The idea went viral (via 1970s-era media and word of mouth, of course).
Yet participants’ performance was not improved even when they were given specific instructions to do so.
That is, direct and explicit instructions to think outside the box did not help.
Because the solution is, in hindsight, deceptively simple, clients tended to admit they should have thought of it themselves.
Because they hadn’t, they were obviously not as creative or smart as they had previously thought, and needed to call in creative experts. The nine-dot puzzle and the phrase “thinking outside the box” became metaphors for creativity and spread like wildfire in marketing, management, psychology, the creative arts, engineering, and personal improvement circles.
In the 1970s, however, very few were even aware of its existence, even though it had been around for almost a century.
If you have tried solving this puzzle, you can confirm that your first attempts usually involve sketching lines inside the imaginary square.
Overnight, it seemed that creativity gurus everywhere were teaching managers how to think outside the box.