There must have been a time when the expression “Think outside the box” meant something. I’m not quite sure, because many expressions that have passed into and out of corporate-speak seem to have been crafted to obscure, if not drain, meaning from a statement.
From my experience, the cliché once captured the idea of changing one’s perspective or approach to problem-solving as a means to achieving a goal. No matter how fecund a particular style of management or problem-solving normally is for you, occasionally you find a situation where it doesn’t produce results easily, if at all. Or, it may work for a while but lose its effectiveness over time. Or it can lead to a lot of wasted time and resources chasing avenues of approach into blind alleys. As one writer put it (back in the days of the typewriter), “Some days the words won’t come; other days, they can’t get to the wastebasket fast enough.”