The Blue Sky Bias*

rachel audige
9 min readJul 28, 2021

A case for constraints in creative thinking

*I’m defining this as a tendency to believe that constraints are bad for creativity and that unconstrained or ‘out-of-the box’ thinking is more conducive to the generation of creative or innovative ideas.

BUDGET Rent a Car did a series of great ads at least 15 years ago that I think illustrate the value of rigour in our creative thinking. In one advert, there is a group of four people brainstorming ideas for the service they could offer ‘to make the experience more enjoyable’.

“We’ll rent Jaguars, town cars,” says one.

“And a Mercury Grand Marquis for $49,” says another.

“The cars will have leather seats, a CD player…”

“…and aromatherapy candles…”

The ad cuts to a Jaguar car on a busy freeway as the four of them picture this:

Along the rear deck, a row of aromatherapy candles burns. The two businessmen are fast asleep in the back. The camera pulls back to the front seat. The man in the front passenger seat is fast asleep and… wait for it… the driver is sleeping too! The car crosses the freeway and disaster looks inevitable…

At that point, we cut back to the group and they say: “We don’t really need aromatherapy candles.”

“But the enjoyable bit was good,” they conclude.

© Rachel Audigé — UNBLINKERED

The series of ads was, of course, a how-bad-could-it-get parody of brainstorming but it’s also a great caricature of a poorly run ‘out-of-the box’ creative thinking session.

Have you ever asked someone to show you how you actually go about thinking outside the box? I have. There is a moment of silence and an awkward smile. Some may reply that it is about doing things differently or thinking more laterally or ‘being open-minded’ and ‘brainstorming without judgement’. All of this sounds very worthwhile but they’re not really sure how to start.

So, where does this expression come from? The ‘box’ actually comes from the work of American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford, who, during the 1970s, conducted a study into creativity using the nine dots puzzle. This is the one where all nine dots have to be connected in four straight lines without lifting your pen. The trick of the puzzle is that you have to go well beyond the square formed by the dots to be able to solve it. The fact that the solution involved going outside the square—or box—led to the idea that to be creative, you had to ‘think outside the box’; you had to work without constraints. This was the birth of out-of-the-box and blue sky thinking and the concept stuck.

The essential claim of proponents of thinking outside of the box is that in order to produce ideas that are new and different, you need to somehow move beyond normal thinking patterns; think laterally, look to a universe located outside the metaphorical box.

The funny thing is that just because you are told to ‘think outside the box’ doesn’t mean you are more likely to find the solution to the puzzle than someone who is not and, when told explicitly to draw lines outside, people are no more likely to solve the problem.

Indeed, a later experiment using the same protocol as Guilford’s study divided participants into two groups, with the second group told the ‘trick’: you needed to draw lines outside the imaginary square to solve the problem. You would assume that having this insight would result in more participants being able to solve the puzzle. Not so. It was only 25%. Constraints seem to make ideas more feasible and thinking more effective.

So, what is wrong with out-of-the box or blue sky thinking?

1. Being told to think outside the box doesn’t help you solve the problem any more than it helps you to be efficient at coming up with good ideas. It seems that when people are told to think outside the box they are actually being hindered in their creative efforts. It relies too much on our imagination. There is too great a creative leap. A blank piece of paper is confronting.

2. As there are often no constraints, the team feels empowered and perhaps energised, but months later if nothing has happened to their ideas (because there is more of a risk of them being unrealistic due to the lack of constraints) the team can become cynical and is likely to boot out the next person who wants to shift the thinking and talk innovation.

3. Blue sky thinking relies on people feeling comfortable to voice immature ideas. This may be the way extroverts clarify their thinking, but it is very uncomfortable for most introverts.

Where outside-the-box thinking is an unhelpful bias for effective creative thinking, what can we more consciously do instead?


“Choice no longer liberates, it debilitates” — Chip & Dan Heath

Contrary to popular belief, we think more efficiently and more resourcefully when we have constraints. Research shows that creativity loves constraints. Constraints increase your creative output — no matter where you are sitting on the creativity spectrum.

To have teams experience this, I split them into pairs — to promote engagement and avoid groupthink — and ask them to come up with something novel, like a tool they have never seen before. We ask for a few ideas. Then we do a second round, only now we add a clear context. For example, now I might add the constraint that the tool is for use in a kitchen. Once again, we ask for some ideas. What is interesting with this simple exercise is that not only are the ideas more specific and resourceful in the second round, but when asked which round they found easier, 80–90% will answer the second. I also notice that their faces light up in the second round and they are much noisier.

“I think frugality drives innovation just like other constraints do. One of the best ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”

– Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon


Creative thinkers such as cognitive scientist Margaret Boden maintain that: “Constraints, far from being opposed to creativity, make creativity possible. Random processes lead to first time curiosities, not radical surprises.”

So, what sort of constraints does creativity love and how do we harness them?

The first is this ‘game-like’ constraint whereby you artificially and consciously create a frame or a ‘box’.

“We all admire people who think outside the box but how do they do it? What if the key to thinking ‘outside the box’ is to create a box to think outside of?” asks Tess Callahan in her inspiring TEDx talk at Newark Academy on ‘The love affair between creativity and constraint’.

Once you have a defined box, you should follow a path of most resistance and limit the resources you can use to ideate or create.

Systematic Inventive Thinking is grounded in this belief that constraints foster creativity. In SIT, we call this ‘The Closed World Principle’. This principle dictates that we should strive to find a solution using only the resources we have available to us. It is the opposite of blue sky thinking.

Roni Horowitz, one of the co-founders of Systematic Inventive Thinking, published this idea in 2000 but was at work on the concept several years earlier when he was collecting data on what he considered highly inventive solutions to engineering problems. He noticed that the ideas satisfied two conditions: they contradicted prevailing wisdom and they were contained in a small space surrounding the problem.

To take this approach, you start by defining the problem world (the ‘box’ you’re going to work within). Once defined, the problem solver knows that all the building blocks for the solution are right there, in front of him, and that the solution simply requires the reorganisation of the existing objects.

It sounds simple but to not go outside the closed world contradicts many ideas about creative thinking. It feels counter-intuitive to limit your options, but this is exactly what forces us to pay closer attention to what is available to us.

This brings us to the second idea: When artists want to paint, they often learn by copying the masters. Likewise, in creative thinking and innovation it is powerful to draw on the most inventive ideas or templates for inspiration.

In SIT you work with the five patterns which we have been using without thinking about it for thousands of years. The brilliant thing is that these patterns or ‘templates’ not only increase our chances of coming up with something exciting because they come from patterns identified in some of the most inventive patents, they also help bust the cognitive biases that may lead us to miss resources that are right under our noses. Each one helps us work systematically through our available resources and challenge their arrangement in space and time, their function and their necessity.

The third constraint is that of embracing unchosen or real limitations. This is creative resourcefulness by force. We are seeing some wonderful examples of constrained creativity with ingenious thinking during Covid-19 confinement. I particularly enjoyed the hilarious results people achieved when internauts were challenged by the Getty Museum to browse its online collection and re-create works of art at home. #gettymuseumchallenge

A well-known example of creativity with externally imposed constraints is found in the resourcefulness of the Apollo 13 rescue mission. While this might have been ‘creative desperation’, it exemplifies our ability to solve problems creatively using only what we have. The team on the ground had to simulate solutions using only what the three men had on board and the result — amongst other things — was an ingenious solution to the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the lunar module.

The story is relatively well known but I delighted in hearing forensic engineer Sean Brady relate it in his podcast ‘Saving Apollo 13’. Engineers took on the famous task of ‘fitting a square peg in a round hole’ (beautifully depicted in the Apollo 13 film) and used plastic covers ripped from procedure manuals, duct tape and a range of other items that the team had up in space to build a solution to enable the men to filter out rising levels of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have killed them.

American artist Phil Hansen gives a compelling TEDTalk account of how he harnessed the power of embracing a limitation — in his case, a physical tremor — to create even more extraordinary art.

After years of painting with a method of tiny dots, Hansen developed a shake in the hand that made it impossible to paint as he was used to doing. His dots “had become tadpoles”. It was good for “shaking a can of paint” but for Phil it was “the destruction of his dream of becoming an artist”. He left art school and he left art.

This didn’t work for him, however, so he went to see a neurologist who diagnosed him with permanent nerve damage. This wasn’t great news. What was great though was what the neurologist said to him: “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?”

So, he went home and started making art with nothing but scribbles. He then limited himself to his feet. He then moved to wood. He moved on to larger materials where his hand tremor was less restricting. He started with a single way of painting and ended up with endless possibilities. “This was the first time that I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity,” said Hansen.

He finished up school and got a new job. This enabled him to afford more art supplies. He explains that he “went nuts” buying stuff and took it home with the intention to do something incredible. He sat there for hours and nothing came. Same thing the next day. And the next. He was “creatively blank”; paralysed by all these choices that he never had before. That was when he thought about what the neurologist had said…

He realised that if he ever wanted his creativity back, he had to quit trying so hard to think outside of the box, and “get back into it”. In fact, he started exploring the idea that he could get more creative by actually looking for limitations:

“We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.”

He took this approach to being ‘inside the box’ and did a series of artworks where he imposed tight constraints: he could only paint on his chest, or he could only create with karate chops or what if he created art to destroy after its creation (an incredible image of Jimmy Hendrix made out of 7000 matches for example!). Hansen found himself in a state of constant creation “coming up with more ideas than ever…”.

We don’t all have the honed creative skills of the astonishing Phil Hansen but that’s all the more reason to boost our creative potential. As individuals and in organisations, we need learnable, robust, repeatable tools to be more skilled inventive thinkers — and to be able to harness this on demand.

Constraints are not a barrier to creative thinking; under constraints your brain works harder and smarter. Once we start thinking of constraints not as a hindrance to creative thinking but a framework for it, we are actually giving ourselves the freedom to find truly innovative solutions.

Rachel is an innovation and marketing facilitator. She is also the author of ‘UNBLINKERED: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking…and how to bust them.’



rachel audige

Unearthing resourceful ideas hiding in plain sight. I am a Franco-Australian facilitator, trainer and writer on innovation and creative marketing & strategy.