Why the term ‘thinking outside the box’ is more than obsolete in 2020

English, Phil O' Soph

We all know and love employment ads. A successful and prestigious company is looking for an enthusiastic candidate with excellent skills, who is passionate about learning something new and can offer exemplary leadership skills. He or she must have 360° experience in different categories, but with a unique passion to conceptualize ideas. Ideally speak three till four languages fluently, but more would be a big plus. And the best should be if he or she has an inherent “think outside the box” mentality.

(Approximate reading time: 10 minutes)


No, these phrases with all the strong and desiring words are not made out of phantasy. They are just copy + pasted from some random employment ads. I got really bored after reading a few. Either they all have the same limited vocabulary or the same boring HR philosophy. Or maybe both.

But the best is, of course, the ‘thinking outside the box’ mentality. Hell, if you repeat the same term 10,000 times, it doesn’t make it better or more interesting.

People want you to think outside of the box before even considering the box itself

All these employment ads from these postmodern ‘We want to be a special company’-companies have one thing in common: Their requirements for a simple position are according to the book and let me always answer with a shake of my head. How can you have the desire for a sensational overqualified candidate-genius with a quaint and groundbreaking attitude, if your own corporate communication is nothing more than a me-too strategy from other competitors?

In other words: How can you request a possible candidate to be innovative and think outside of the box, if you as a company are not living out the same?

Very great is as well the question:

“What can you bring to our team that is special and unique?”

That’s a difficult question, of course. I don’t know your team and what is maybe missing to complete it. Hence, I don’t know what you think is special. For me, to be special is being extraordinary and diverge from the expected norm. But of course, for the employment agents that’s not enough. Someone really unique is requested to fill out a once in a lifetime position. It’s actually a luck of the draw, that this company is searching for someone at this moment. And I should be awestruck, that I even have the opportunity to read this employment and can apply for it. Please draw a lottery ticket and wait until the jury is examining you carefully.

Humans are by nature gregarious animals and only in exceptional cases really unique. But it seems like every company wants to have for a simple bookkeeper position now a real Da Vinci artist. The saddest thing is, that these companies don’t even realize how unrealistic their own expectations are. Aren’t they disappointed, if they won’t be able to recruit the next perfect and invincible superhero?

Looking for a team member or individualist?

If a company is looking for someone who should work in a team, they are never looking for a unique personality. Working in a team means always to fill out a role with your personal and interpersonal skillset in a running system. It is by definition not possible at all to hire a unique personality for a team. Or have you seen a team, which consists only of unique individuals without any connection to each other? That’s of course absurd and can’t function in a successful and interrelated department.

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Real uniqueness is rare to find. And even if – Do individualists fit into team-based systems?

This peremptory attitude of a suzerain is a really disgusting behavior that has sneaked into the company culture of many enterprises. I do not understand, why HR is adjusted to have this imperiousness and condescending attitude against a candidate. Why aren’t they trying to be authentic and really themselves? Why giving a grandiloquent and cocky image to the applicant? I don’t want to have the feeling that I am applying for an imperator, but if I read nowadays employment ads I feel exactly this way. What I am really looking for is a trustworthy relationship between employer and employee. A good interdependence of demanding and encouraging each other.

So, you are looking for a candidate for a creative position with excellent spelling and “think outside the box” mentality. This requires first to know and find out, that one is inside of a box. This ‘box’ means nothing else but borders, limits, and frontiers that has been established before by someone (society, government, employers, laws, family, even the company itself). Breaking all habits and dull routines means to reach to new horizons that no one of the own sphere and environment has ever discovered.


The dilemma of being an innovative individualist

As an alumnus of ‘Innovation and tourism marketing’, I was introduced to the scientific concept of innovation and learned it as well from the practical point of view. Exploring new ways, I was the only one of 30 students from the same course, who did his graduation internship on another continent. During my time in South America, especially in Paraguay, I found out, that my innovative approaches from my experiences of work and study were too advanced and that the majority of the people on this continent didn’t really understand the concepts and solutions I was talking about.

Geert Hofstede 6D Model of National Culture

When I was suggesting and talking about new methods, ways or solutions, the people I was working with didn’t either comprehend nor understand the actual problem. Why? Because they accepted their daily habit and routines, that I was suggesting to break. I never heard so often ‘This is not possible’ like during these times. ‘This is my box and I like it’.

Other nations have comparable proverbs as well:
‘I no naka no kawazu, taikai o shirazu’ (Japanese for ‘The frog in the fountain doesn’t know about the wide sea’)
‘Über den eigenen Tellerrand hinausblicken’ (German for ‘To look beyond the edge of your own plate’)

But no matter if it is a box, a fountain or the edge of a plate. Every idiom represents symbolically the same issue. The own horizon. And if a company is looking for someone to broaden his own horizon, to go new and innovative ways and to discover unknown solutions, doesn’t it mean that they are challenging us secretly and passively to be an entrepreneur to compete with them? A candidate should bring an innovative attitude to find new solutions. But wouldn’t it be better to start with it yourself, invent a new approach and offer this new service or product to the company that was looking for it?

Maybe. There are almost no real innovations or unique things anymore. 95% of all new product innovations fail due to all kinds of reasons, mostly financially reasons. Apparently, it doesn’t really work to have a groundbreaking and innovative manner. Or do HR recruiters like to see 95% of their candidates running and smacking against walls?

What happened to me during an online job interview

To finish this innovative blog article, I would like to copy and paste a unique-generic little exercise of one online application I was doing a few months ago:

“In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and say something that will catch our eye!”

Task during an online job-interview

If you ever get this question from HR during a job interview or when you apply for a job don’t break your head. Creativity can’t be measured and is always an individual gusto. What person A answerers, might person B like, but person C not at all.

Surprisingly, I saw this little exercise a few times again after. So much for the subject of creativity and thinking out of the box. As an insiders’ tip from me to you, you could answer the following:

“I am yellow.”

Why is that an eye-catcher? Because yellow is the first of all colors that the human eye can catch. This answer made me twice pass to the next stage. The best would be to only say ‘I am yellow’ because you will automatically provoke a counter-question. You think, that the answer is stupid? I think, that the question is stupid as well. Generic candidate #174632 greets generic recruiter #372781! What HR wants to have here is a witty person who can give in limited time and with a limited response range a quaint answer. So that’s what I did and I even engaged them to ask a counter-question. But at least you engaged the HR manager’s brain for a second to think outside of his own box.

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