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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.

That this advice is useless when actually trying to solve a problem involving a real box should effectively have killed off the much widely disseminated—and therefore, much more dangerous—metaphor that out-of-the-box thinking spurs creativity.

After all, with one simple yet brilliant experiment, researchers had proven that the conceptual link between thinking outside the box and creativity was a myth. But you will find numerous situations where a creative breakthrough is staring you in the face.

The correct solution, however, requires you to draw lines that extend beyond the area defined by the dots.

The idea went viral (via 1970s-era media and word of mouth, of course).

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.

Overnight, it seemed that creativity gurus everywhere were teaching managers how to think outside the box.

Management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s even used this puzzle when making sales pitches to prospective clients.

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