The scene repeats itself everyday in the boardrooms and workgroups of the world. People are given a vague goal to innovate a product, reengineer a process, or develop something “big.” They may have been given some minimal instructions, but there main goal is to develop some novel approach by thinking outside the box. The idea here is that the status quo is too constraining, so to arrive at a truly new idea, you need to break free from the constraints and start with a blank slate. I know I always get a little nervous when I’ve been asked to do this. Apparently I’m not the only one.
In the last several weeks, I’ve run across two articles that espouse a different kind of innovative thinking. Instead of breaking free from “the box” and jumping into an abyss of creativity, these two articles approach innovation by creating a new box that constrains in a way that actually sparks creativity.
The Fast Company article Get Back in the Box by Dan Heath and Chip Heath (Authors of Made to Stick) promote the idea of going shopping for a new box instead of dropping the box altogether. A good way of box shopping is to combine two or more seemingly unrelated items. Dan and Chip Heath give several examples including:
- When redesigning the service areas of a bank, the marketing person framed the goal by saying they “want the space to be more like Starbucks and less like a post office.”
- The HBO show Entourage could have been developed and pitched as “Sex and City” for men.
Both of these examples provide fertile ground for creativity, but they have done so by creating a new box or set of constraints.
The second article, Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box is in this month’s (December 2007) Harvard Business Review. In this article, they describe how to construct a new box by asking the right questions. They point out that asking the right questions helps to generate ideas. Questions such as:
- “What is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?”
- “Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?”
- “Which technologies underlying our production processes have changed the most since we last rebuilt our…systems.”
These questions can be used to trigger other questions until ultimately new ideas are generated.
Although the HBR article is more prescriptive in identifying how to create new boxes, both take the approach that constraints can actually be effective ways to creating new ideas. So, the next time you find yourself trying to think outside the box, create a new box and think inside it.