First, let’s agree, here and now, to no longer use the phrase, “think outside the box”. Henceforth condensed to “it”.  “It” is a cliché, a tired trope, a worn-out platitude that should have never made it this far riding on the backs of cheap suits. It is a sad piece of strip mall management seminar jargon akin to “synergism”.

There is one exception. If you just materialized in front of me, in a time-traveling Buick LeSabre from 1999 with the license plate “TIME SBR” (#TimeSabre).  Then roll down your window, finish your Surge energy drink, turn down Third Eye Blind and rightfully say, “I think outside the box”

Don’t Tell, Show

You wouldn’t go on a date and say, “I’m funny” and then look across the table with a blank, unblinking stare.  If you want people to know you are funny, make up some good jokes. Similarly, don’t say I’m an “it” thinker. Don’t tell, show.  You want to communicate your ability to solve wicked problems using your individualistic problem-solving prowess. You don’t follow the beaten path, you don’t even blaze your own trail, you realize this trail stuff is wildly inefficient and are working on a personal transportation drone. So, create an awesome portfolio and share it.  Create a pug-shaped, fire-spewing fighting robot or a sound-distorting nunchuck musical instrument, or anything outlandish that catches people off guard. And use corrugated fiberboard if you want, it is a good prototyping material.

Stop Think Managing

When an impromptu meeting is called so someone can boldly proclaim, “we are going to need to think outside the box on this one,” my inner fire permanently dims a few lumens. Unorthodox problem solving is not a ripcord to be pulled in dire situations! Get ready for it, you should always be thinking this way! Let me repeat this, it should be your working norm… always!  Why wouldn’t it be? It is available, it is free, it is game-changing, and it is a part of the new rules of engagement. If you are proposing “it” as novel, in any way, you are comically behind the curve. Even if you work for a company that exclusively makes boxes, you shouldn’t even jokingly say “it”. The crushing wave of a company that makes matterless, formless, energy containers is going to ruthlessly eat your lunch.

If the goal really is to start a shake-it-up revolution, there are good questions to ask to facilitate reframing.  For instance:

  • “What would this look like if it was easy?”
  • “What foundational assumptions can we challenge?”
  • “What would the opposite look like?”

Work Your Think Muscle

Original and paradigm smashing thinking is a spectrum, on which we all fall. A few visionaries fall at the upper limit. The rest of us mortals, in reality, fall somewhere in the middle. The good news is that training and reframing the problem-solving mindset is largely a developable growth area.  The more the muscle gets worked, the stronger it gets. The more the muscle gets flexed, the more mind-blowing designs get body slammed on the competition.

Next step thinking produces next step results. Great for getting up a flight of steps or producing underwhelming and anti-climactic releases.

Don’t Fear Results

I am not opposed to tackling problems in seemingly preposterous, radical, and unorthodox ways. Very much the opposite. I am opposed to management masquerading as agents of change when the opposite is true. They view real change as a threat and are secretly hoping and conspiring for predictably small progress. The kind of “progress” that leads to a slow death. The risk they fear is that trying something bold will flop or if they somehow manage to catch lightning in a bottle, they will never be able to repeat it. So, they opt for the slow death, buying time to plan an exit strategy.

The kicker is, saying “it” allows them to shirk responsibility, and to pass the buck to folks that actually want progress. They can claim they tried. Saying “it” doesn’t accomplish “it”. If it did, everyone would say it – Which is the problem. But it doesn’t, so just don’t. It is not a light switch.  You have to actually mean “it”. You can’t just suggest “it” or even just promote “it”, you have to force yourself and others to do things differently than they have been done in the past and reward the onslaught of primarily useless results and dig for the rare gem.

Say The Pledge (Daily)

I am asking all of you to take the, I’m Not Saying “Think Outside the Box” pledge:

I’m Not Saying “Think Outside the Box

Dan is a nice, optimistic, and pleasant person and when I say “Think Outside the Box”, I am slowly and systematically draining his lifeforce, that of my own, and that of anyone who hears me. I pledge to take time every day to 1) shift focus 2) consider other people’s perspective and 3) look at problems from radically different vantage points.  I will not fight for marginal gains towards commoditization in an overcrowded marketplace. Instead, I will champion the blue ocean solution. I will think like a renegade, prototype like a madman, party like it’s 1999, and design solutions like my life depends on it.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.