What does “Out of the Box” mean?

Posted On: March 20, 2018

Some years ago I asked this question to a room full of engineers during a training program on business writing in Kottayam, India. We were learning about corporate jargon and idioms used at work.  

How Can We Use the Phrase “Out of the Box”

Meaning 1: No Changes, Can Be Used As Is Immediately 

Out of the box: It can be out of the ordinary, a surprise

One of the software engineers raised her hand and said, “It means to use a software straight from the box without customizing it.” 

Possibly, for this first definition, we can expand the phrase to “out of the box feature” or “out of the box software.” Basically, this means using the product straight off the shelf, or out of the store or manufacturer without making any changes. 

Though I provide training to those in the software industry, I am not a software engineer or developer and have no engineering or computer science background, I was taken off-guard by this, as I had not heard of it before. But, it made total sense. 

“I like it!” I said, “Let’s add this to the list of meanings for this idiom. However, there is another meaning to this you may encounter when talking with American clients… anyone have any guesses?” 

Meaning 2: To Make Changes, Creative Thinking Is Needed
Ironically, the meaning I was looking for seems to be opposite of the above meaning. If the above meaning means using something straight out of the package without changes or customizations- it’s easy and no ‘thinking’ is really required to get the job done as it should happen as per the instructions that come with the box (easier said than done!). However, the meaning I was getting to was, “thinking beyond, thinking creatively, thinking outside the parameters of the given instructions, maybe even thinking about how to customize or tweak something to personalize it for a business or an individual.” 

Possibly, here, we can expand the phrase to “out of the box thinking” or “thinking outside the box.” 

Dictionary Definitions 

Out of the box (feature) 

An out-of-the-box feature or functionality (also called OOTB or off the shelf), particularly in software, is a feature or functionality of a product that works immediately after or even without any special installation without any configuration or modification. It also means that it is available for all users by default, and are not required to pay additionally to use those features, or needs to be configured. (source: Wikipedia) 

Used to refer to the immediate usability or functionality of a newly purchased product, typically an electronic device or a piece of software. 

  • ‘most laptops come with wireless capability out of the box’ 
  • ‘console games need to be good to go right out of the box’ 
  • ‘the product is designed as an out-of-the-box portal for the medium to large enterprise’ (Oxford Dictionary

Out of the box [thinking] / To think outside the box 

To think outside the box is to look further and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them. (Wikipedia) 

Read another, more philosophical view of this phrase at Desi Highway

Use in Spoken English
Out of the box (software) 

Software which is not customized is "out of the box"
“Our software is so amazing! It will ease all
your worries as it can be used right out of
the box. Easy set up, easy to go!”

A guess on my part may be, “We have a solution for you that you can use right out of the box! It’s easy, no customizations are needed, you can download it and log in immediately, and it’s affordable!” 

Out of the box (without change) 
This post was inspired by a line I read in an article reviewing different kinds of hiking boots. This sentence references problems with tying the boot, it says, “You can solve this by upgrading the laces and taking care when tightening, but it’s not something you should have to deal with out of the box.” 

They also wrote this about a boot they seemed to like, “It’s well built, extremely comfortable right out of the box, and can handle just about anything you can throw at it.” 

The authors used the term ‘out of the box’ quite a few times in this article. It can be read here. (This is not a product placement. This article is being used for the sole purpose of example.) 

Out of the box (thinking) 
“We have tried all the usual solutions. Anyone have any out of the box ideas?” 
“We can really use some out of the box thinking on this one!” 
“Team, thinking outside the box is important to not repeating the mistakes we made in the past!” 

When researching this phrase, ‘out of the box,’ it seems that there are even more meanings in Australia and New Zealand. There may also be variations on this phrase in the U.K. Try your best to follow the conversation to get the entire context of the conversation, this will help to get the meaning of the idiom they are using. 

Author, Jennifer Kumar provides out of the box, ready to use and customizable virtual training solutions to build virtual, international teams, including preparing your team to drive client meetings with US based stakeholders with minimal manager involvement. 

Related Posts 
Difference between slang, buzzwords, corporate and industry jargon 
“Putting our heads together” a good idiom for brainstorming or thinking outside the box (this post also has a downloadable worksheet with a list of corporate idioms) 
When to use ‘advice’ vs ‘advise’ 

image credit: both from pixabay




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