Welcome to my new weekly series. In Professional Patois I will choose an example of business jargon to discuss each week, looking at how it is used, what it actually means or its derivation, and alternative options.

The words and phrases I review are not necessarily to be avoided at all costs. Most of these idioms I use as well and frankly, sometimes they are the simplest way to communicate. However, specificity can make a difference in business, both to reconsider what we are saying and to ensure our audience is understanding the correct thing. This is why I believe jargon is always worth examining.

We start with one of my favorites:

To Think Outside The Box

People use this expression to ask others to think creatively or come up with an unexpected idea.

The instruction is a good one but this idiom is, indeed, greatly over-used. As a leader, it is your job to ensure your team is not stuck in a box, so if you find yourself using this expression with a group of people you manage, you may want to flip it around and ask yourself what is keeping them constrained in their thinking.

Actual Meaning

The expression comes from the Nine Dots Puzzle, which has been used by psychologists, philosophers and, of course, management consultants.

You are presented with nine dots aligned in a square, and the goal is to connect all the dots using only four straight lines and never lifting your pen from the paper. If you google this you will see the solution on page one of results, so try it first for yourself.

At the risk of a spoiler alert: you have to think beyond the confines of the perceived “box” to answer correctly.


As an instruction, this is vague and risks being unhelpful. If you are a team leader, note the root of your title: to lead. It is your responsibility to give your people the tools and boundaries – yes: boundaries – to be creative. Everything has to occur for a particular goal and with access to the correct resources, after all.

Note that if you are not a team leader, there is no rule against you leading the team anyway.

Instead of implicitly closing people in boxes and then asking them to break free, try a different analogy. For example give them a simple dot starting point and ask them to work outwards from there. Or perhaps starting point A – current resources – and ending point B – desired outcome – and the road and vehicles they utilize are up to them.

My Work

When teams or companies are struggling to differentiate themselves or break into a new growth spurt, to “think outside the box” can come in truly handy. There is a lot of good knowledge within your team already: your product or service, your clients, your competitors, your environment are all of greater familiarity to you and your colleagues than anybody else.

What helps sometimes is the facilitation of new ideas. I have a series of exercises I perform with teams in this situation, to help them take a fresh look at who they are serving, how, and why. The goal is precisely to break down the barriers of habit and allow fresh ideas to arise, producing new ways to communicate with clients and improvements to your product or service that will set you apart from the competition.