Global Perspective

Serendipitous and Non-Linear Thinking

By Martin Conboy

Thinking outside the box is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s challenging their clients to solve the “nine dots” puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking. “The box”, with its implication of rigidity and squareness, symbolises constrained and unimaginative thinking.

The cliché has become widely used in business settings, especially by management consultants and executive coaches. To think outside the box is to look further and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them.

Experts do agree that there is the potential to train the human brain to learn new skills and ideas. Most people have considerable redundancy in brain utilisation, so there is always plenty of room for improvement.

One way to improve brainpower is to stimulate the brain with chemicals. Stephen Hawking credits his ability to function and maintain focus on such a high level to a certain set of ‘smart drugs” that enhance brain function and neural connectivity, while strengthening the prefrontal cortex and boosting memory and recall.

 Hawking added, “The brain is like a muscle, you have got to work it out and use supplements just like body builders use, to enhance your mental capabilities”.


Another way is more natural!

What do Velcro, Penicillin, X-rays, Teflon and Dynamite have in common? Serendipity!

These diverse things were discovered by accident, as were hundreds of other things that make everyday living more convenient, pleasant, healthy or interesting. All have come to us as a result of serendipity – the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for or “the faculty of making fortunate or unexpected discoveries by accident”.

If you think that the inventions we see around us came from someone sitting in a cubical and concocting them according to a timetable or linear thinking, think again: almost everything of the moment is the product of serendipity. In other words, you find something you were not looking for and it changes the world, while wondering after its discovery why it “took so long” to arrive at something so obvious.

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754. Walpole was impressed by a fairy tale he had read about the adventures of The Three Princes of Serendip (or Serendib, an ancient name for Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka), who “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”.

Over the years, its meaning has shifted somewhat from its earlier connotation of “accidents and sagacity” to “looking for one thing and finding another. Today, “serendipity” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” 

There’s a lot of pressure in the business world these days to be innovative – to “think differently”. But how do you create the kinds of conditions that help you come up with new ideas?How can people overcome their ingrained practice of thinking linearly, which is the idea that there is one direct answer to a problem: A + B = C?

But this approach can be very limiting. It can lead to getting stuck in with tunnel vision. It's critical, therefore, to step back and make space for your intuition to see the broader picture as a way to spark new ideas. As the saying goes, if you want a different output you need a different input. Or, as Albert Einstein said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Personally, for myself, I like to work backwards. Let me explain. Sometimes what you need is to focus on the solution first, and build backwards from that solution. In my minds eye, I can often see the solution with no real clue as to how I arrived there.

To make sense of how I arrived at the solution to the problem, I then work on filling in the linear gaps. I am a prolific reader and a keen observer. I remember the most obscure pieces of information and they sit in my human Random Access Memory (RAM). Then, because I don't purge my personal RAM, I have trained my mind not to disregard information. Thus, with a little effort a piece of information presents itself at exactly the right time! I have often tried to describe how this works for me, however I have never actually written it down. I refer to it as “bridging” or making connections between what at first seem like disconnected pieces of information.

I believe that the process works best when one has a curious disposition and an open mind. I try not to box myself in and always allow myself the freedom to let information “float” in my mind until I need it. I often amaze myself and ask, “Where did that come from?”

This is where non-linear thinking—where A + B + C — becomes so valuable. It offers you a broad perspective on how to solve a problem. You use your insight, intuition, creativity and emotion when communicating information.

Even linear thinking ideas can deliver unexpected results. There’s a branch of mathematics called catastrophe theory. It shows how, in some cases, a continuous and linear input might give rise to sudden and unexpected outcomes.

For example, the slow and regular migration of continental plates slowly builds an increasing level of stress. Energy is built up a little at a time. For years, nothing happens at all — everyone is blind to this ticking time bomb. And suddenly, all this energy is released as an earthquake.

Doing some casual research – I found some useful strategies for coming up with Creative Solutions:

• Change your space:Create psychological distance between your normal routine and the time for creativity. It's important to get away from all the typical routines in order to foster creativity. The idea of changing it up is a common one amongst successful and creative thinkers. This means that you either create a specific ritual around creativity, or that you simply find a way to take a break.

Take a shower or go for a walk. There is something weirdly conducive about showering, as anyone who's had that amazing idea while stuck in the shower (only to forget it when you finally locate a pen and paper). Like showering, something about walking fosters creativity. Whether it's taking a walk as a prelude to getting started with your creative project, or as part of the project itself, taking a walk will help get those creative juices flowing. Steve Jobs used to hold walking meetings to brainstorm ideas.


• Brainstorm:Throwing out tons of different ideas, especially ideas that might seem slightly off-the-wall can be a great idea to pick out a few really good ideas. Brainstorming helps to open up your thinking so that you aren't stuck in the same old thought patterns.

This is the time when all ideas are welcome, no matter how silly or unworkable they sound. If you start limiting yourself during this stage of the thinking game, you aren't going to progress very far.

Avoid saying things to yourself during this phase that will shut down creativity rather than encourage it. Catch yourself anytime you say: “That won't work”, “We haven't done it that way before”, “We can't solve this problem” or “We don't have enough time.”


• Reconceptualise the problem:Part of finding creative solutions and ideas stems from looking at the problem or project in a new way. Looking at something in a new way allows you to look at new possible solutions that you might not otherwise have considered. Fortunately, there are some concrete aids to reconceptualising that you can draw on.

Turn the problem upside down. This can be done literally or figuratively. Turning a picture upside down can actually make it easier to draw, because your brain has to look at it in terms of its makings rather than what it thinks should be there. This works for more conceptual problems.

•  Daydream: Daydreaming helps you to make connections and form patterns and recall information. This is key when you're thinking outside the box, because daydreaming can help you make connections that you might not otherwise have considered. So often your best ideas seem to come out of nowhere while you're daydreaming.

Give yourself time to daydream. You can daydream while on that walk, or in the shower (this is one reason taking time to go for a walk or shower can be so conducive to creative thinking). Daydream in the morning before you have to get up, or at night before you fall asleep.


• Set parameters: Sometimes if you're having difficulty thinking outside the box, it's time to give yourself some basic parameters. This may seem like it would hinder creativity, but if you set the right parameters you'll find that it can actually open things up for you.

Starting too broad can put too much pressure on you. You're still asking open questions and still considering a wide variety of options, but you're anchoring your ideas to a specific question or task. This will help you come up with more specific ideas.


•  Consider the worst-case scenario:Fear is what holds back creativity. Fear is what makes you stick the paths that you know the best. When you consider the worst-case scenario not only can you plan for it, but you can also convince yourself that the worst-case scenario isn't bad enough that you shouldn't try.


Maintaining Your Creativity Long-Term

• Eliminate negativity: The thing that will hold you back from thinking outside the box more than anything else is negativity. Consistently telling yourself that you can't think creatively or vetoing every idea as too “out there” is going to severely limit what you come up with.


• Keep your creativity sharp: Like any skill, creativity needs to be exercised to keep it going. Even when you don't have a particular problem that needs your creative solution, keep working on your creativity. It will help you when you are suddenly confronted with something that needs thinking outside the box.


• Change up your routine:Creativity thrives when you don't stay stuck in the same old routine. Even the littlest changes can have good consequences for getting you out of a rut and encouraging creative thinking.


• Study another industry: This will help to show you how people outside your chosen field operate and give you ideas you can incorporate into your field. The industry could be completely different from yours, or have some overlap, but it should be different enough to give you a fresh perspective on your own.


• Learn new things: The more you broaden your horizons the more connections your brain is going to be able to make. The more information your brain has access to, the more it's able to come up with unusual ideas.


Connecting With Other People Creatively

• Surround yourself with creative people:Humans are social animals. You'll be inspired when other people are inspired. The creativity will remain high when you work or befriend people who inspire that creativity in you and in your work.


• Pay attention to other people’s ideas:Ideas don't exist in a vacuum. Even creative thinkers like Salvador Dali (as an example) started with ideas in his painting that he'd gotten from earlier sources. Paying attention to other people's ideas will help foster your own.

Be willing to explore things that are out of your comfort zone. It's refreshing and you can find new interests and meet new people.

Read something that isn't your usual genre. For example, if you think you hate crime fiction, why not try reading one? You might be pleasantly surprised; even if not, you've challenged your thinking processes.


• Learn to listen:One way to encourage creative thinking is to stay quiet and listen to what other people are saying. Part of why this is such a good idea is that it helps you really hear what other people are saying so you don't present the same ideas that have already been presented. It also helps you to marshal your thoughts before you speak.


• Remember, you will be presenting ideas that might be outside of ‘normal’: This is just something to remember when you're engaging with other people, especially in terms of business relations. Sometimes the ideas from outside of the box aren't actually the right way to go!


Martin Conboy is the Australian Director of Pacific Accounting & Business Services (PABS). He was also the former Chairman of Australia BPO Association.