"Outside the Box" and "Disruptive Thinking"


Intel Enabler
Sep 9, 2006
What do you think? Is "outside the box" thinking a smokescreen for inexperience and ignorance? What about "disruptive thinkers" who might actually be "ill-informed non-thinkers?"


Coming as we do from a Special Operations Forces (SOF) background, we recognize full well the value of unconventional thinking and innovation in the military arts. Over the years, however, we have seen too many uniformed personnel of all ranks and services wear the ignorance of their profession as some kind of badge of honor. An unfortunately large number of purported military professionals like to puff out their chests and say “I think outside the box” when a more accurate and objective statement would be, “I don’t really understand the fundamentals of my profession and don’t want to take the time to learn.” This attitude puts them, their men, and the mission at risk.
What many people don’t realize is that the ability to observe, orient, decide, and act “outside the box” usually comes after many years deliberately spent *in* the box, learning the ropes and developing a baseline of what works, what doesn’t work, and what just might work if the situation is desperate enough. What some chalk up to “outside the box” thinking is simply the result of flexibility gained from deep experience. It’s not something any of us are born with necessarily, it’s something that takes time to develop. But like many skills practiced by special operations forces, people look at the results and misjudge what it took to get to that point. Because SOF often make innovation, improvisation, and adaption look easy, people think it *is* easy. They never see the years of study, practice, effort, and yes, failure, that it took to get to that point. So they try to emulate what they think they see, and many times they fail. Miserably.
A close catchphrase cousin of an “out of the box” thinker is the “disruptive” thinker. In fact, the terms are almost interchangeable. But whereas the “outside the box” thinker considers himself an innovator, the “disruptice” thinker seeks to make a name for himself by attacking the status quo. The major problem with some people who think of themselves as disruptive thinkers is that they are actually argumenative, ill-informed non-thinkers. Creative thinking is one thing; disuption of the unit and/or mission is something completely different, especially when the “disruptive” idea is nothing other than a poorly-implemented application of some theory that was vaguely mentioned in a popular book, seen in a movie, or covered in a military education course or a graduate school business class. Too many “disruptive thinkers” lack the intellectual and experiencial depth to understand the fundamentals of both the status quo they are challenging and the ideas they espouse to fix it, so they merely focus on repeating buzzwords and relishing the resulting attention they receive for their “disruptive” ideas.

Diamondback 2/2

Verified Military
Jan 24, 2008
Military Mentor
I can't speak to the SOF side, but I am a firm believer that you have to know and understand the inside of the "box" to start playing around on the outside.

I like using basic small unit tactics vs TTP's when discussing "outside the box thinking". Soldiers have to have a basic level of understanding in SUT before you can get feedback on how to adjust and develop the TTPs of the unit. If you don't have that, you have dismounted IED clearance patrols in Baghdad in the summer of 2004. You have to have smart people who understand the basics, to break away and find solution that the basics do not properly address.

I view the "inside the box" as the standardization of the organization, either it be through doctrine or practice. The "outside the box" is what we don't know or have yet to understand. I am not sure if that is the way others view it, but with that analogy, you would have to know and understand what we know, before you can explore or discover what we do not know.



Verified SWAT
Jul 29, 2008
A galaxy far, far away
I fully agree that in order to lay claim to the type of outside the box thinking that we see SOF use so successfully one must have a complete understanding of, and abiding respect for, the box itself. As the author correctly states, this cannot occur without a great deal of experience within the larger system.

It's OK--sometimes even necessary--to choose a course of action that lies outside established practice. But doing so should only happen when the individual understands the conventional practice, why it is in place, what the alternatives are, why it won't work, and what the potential consequences are for taking the path less travelled. The (unseen and often unrecognized by the peanut gallery) comprehensive knowledge of the conventional system SOF troops possess is what allows them to make what appears to others to be intuitive decisions and demonstrate flashes of unconventional brilliance.

This is true in any organization where individuals are separated from the main body to perform specialized duties.


Verified SOF
Aug 14, 2006
The problem is that everyone claims to be able to think outside the box or everytime there is a tasking you hear people say think outside the box. It has turned into just another catch phrase rather than being an indicator of a person who can perform in a manner outside the norm. Rather than everyone being able to think outside the box, more people need to be able to get the job done.


Verified SOF
Aug 18, 2007
San Antonio Texas
Loss of professionalism and understanding of "the big picture" has diminished the force.

Outside the box assumes you know what's in the box.

Just like managers patting each other on the back and proclaiming their leadership/warrior skills.

A buzz word, and nothing more.

Board and Seize

Marine Recon
Verified SOF
Jan 29, 2013
Commence thread resurrection! (Wildass Acronyms Comingto You! [WACKY])

While I agree with the above posts:
  • 'Outside the box thinking' (OtBT) is often used to conceal bad thinking
  • Effective OtBT requires having first mastered the box
I think that true OtBT hasn't really gotten a fair shake here. To be clear, I am dismissing the cases of:
  1. non-OtBT (that is disguised as OtBT)
  2. bad OtBT (someone attempting to think OtB without first mastering the box)
Having identified these as either 'bad' OtBT or not really OtBT at all, let's consider 'good' OtBT... after looking at ItBT. While there is much to be said for standardization and putting core competencies into a box with sharply delineated lines, there are plenty of undesirable side-effects. Perhaps the worst (to my mind) comes up in standardized education. You can apply this as far as you like, but I will confine myself to military education.

The USA TRADOC and USMC formal schools that I have been to utterly failed to educate. Sure, they passed on information. But when the box is your world, nothing outside the box matters. Let's imagine that the people who created a box, say for Subject X, deeply understood X and had really mastered it. They knew all the intricacies, challenges, ramifications, and could field any question - no matter how probing or detailed. Thanks to this deep understanding, they were able to cherry-pick the most salient and crucial details from their body of knowledge and put them on paper. They finely tuned where the box's lines would be - what would be included, and what wasn't strictly necessary. BOOM! formal POI/COI/Doctrine/Box/whatever.

Next, these masters train the first batch of instructors on X. These guys get pretty good, but few (if any) get to the masters' level. They train students and do a good job. They are able to field most questions, and see how to properly apply the information in the box to unanticipated situation. Personnel rotations happen, and the first instructors train their replacements (Inst2).

They do a pretty good job. Inst2 master the information, but few (if any) get to Inst1's level... Do you see where I am going with this? Imagine an original document photocopied. Then the copy is copied. And so on. Eventually you get to a point where Inst(n) know the information but have NO understanding beyond the material presented in the class. Times, people, equipment, and situations change. The information becomes (inevitably) outdated in some aspects. Inst(n) have zero (or at best, little) ability to even recognize this. Students who suggest this are dogpiled. To suggest that the material is wrong is to suggest that the instructor is wrong. The instructor often places their identity of sense of ability/achievement on how well they mastered the info. If the info is wrong, their ego necessarily is diminished.

So you get a feedback loop that discourages people from looking OtB to improve stuff ItB. People growing up ItB learn not to question the box, or even try to develop an understanding, as they will be punished (in some sense). That is how they are trained. Eventually they take over the box and continue the cycle. It's like the Rhesus money experiment I mention in my letter to Amos.
I am reminded of Stephenson’s 1967 experiment on rhesus monkeys which went anecdotally like this: Five monkeys are placed in a cage. Also in the cage is a banana hanging from the ceiling above a ladder. Predictably, the monkeys attempt to retrieve the banana. However, the researchers sprayed all of the monkeys with ice-cold water before they manage to get the banana. This procedure is repeated until the monkeys have leaned how not to behave. At this point one trained monkey is replaced with a naïve one who hasn’t learned the rules. He sees the banana, and goes to get it. The other four monkeys promptly beat him up to avoid being sprayed with the water. This process is repeated until none of the original monkeys who were sprayed remain. One more monkey is replaced, and the new one goes for the banana. He is beat up by the other four – none of whom ever witnessed the original situation or reason for avoiding the banana. They have knowledge without understanding. And that knowledge is quite possibly flawed.
It only takes a few generational cycles before you have a box that is washed out.

SO, I am not a fan of strictly ItB cultures. They are inevitably toxic. Having a community that is passionate and cares deeply about the subject allows continual revitalization of the box, which helps to diminish this negative feedback vortex of doom. But even for those groups, the revitalization has to be inspired OtB, because boxes have little depth. I think that the military tries to alleviate this by having a series of larger and deeper boxes nested. That way senior enlisted and officers master a bigger box which encompasses the junior box.

I'm running out of time and have to run to class. Let me sum up by saying that, properly executed 'good' OtBT is a good thing. It can be uncomfortable if the box is so degraded that it is challenged. Especially in those cases however, the OtBT is crucial.




Mar 26, 2017
North Carolina
Board and Seize nailed it. Much of what is "in the box" is gained through hard lessons learned initially, and is assumed to be therefore infallible by the second or third generation from the framers of "the box." I have a personal rule regarding these matters. If someone cannot clearly explain the initial conditions for the adoption of a doctrine, tactic, or tradition, I consider it fair play to question and improve. Each problem is guaranteed to have some subtle nuances that are worthy of a critical analysis without prejudging what your plan will be by dogmatically sticking to legacies that may not apply. You change even one piece on a chess board and it's an entirely new board that needs to be examined.