Innovation in a box

PreRamble:  I’ve had an attitude about the phrase “think outside the box” for quite some time.  Seems to me, a phrase that’s supposed to reference creative thought should be less of a hackneyed cliche.

Well, so then, along comes the latest shiny theory to crack the code on innovation, “Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results” by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg.

A quick excerpt from the WSJ interview with the authors on their approach:

The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn’t follow rules or patterns. Would-be innovators are told to “think outside the box,” “start with a problem and then brainstorm ideas for a solution,” “go wild making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your product or service.”

We advocate a radically different approach: thinking inside the proverbial box, not outside of it. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them. By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative—and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.

Embrace the box – (Snark alert) I get it — they flip the conventional notion of thinking “outside” the box to thinking “inside” the box.  We’re still dealing with orientation to a box.  … I may as well accept the fact that this metaphorical device is now an accepted convention in innovation-speak and get over it.

Boyd and Goldenberg’s radically different approach takes “a product, concept, situation, service or process and breaks it into components or attributes.” Using one of the following five techniques, innovators then manipulate the components in their environment/”box” to create “new-to-the-world ideas that can then be put to valuable use.”

  1. Subtraction – Remove seemingly essential elements.
  2. Task unification – Bring together unrelated tasks or functions.
  3. Multiplication – Copy a component and then alter it.
  4. Division – Separate the components of a product or service and rearrange them.
  5. Attribute dependency – Make the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment.

Poof – Sounds simple enough, and actually, most innovations ultimately seem to be very simple insights applied in a “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” new way (ex: Velcro) … A couple thoughts on the “inside the box” theory and innovative thinking:

  • Depends on what’s in the box … Is it a high quality environment?  Is it organized? Accessible?  Diverse?  Understood? … Inspiring?
  • Agree that exercises in free-wheeling random association are unlikely to pay off …
  • Also agree that meaningful innovation comes from some kind of synergy with elements already in the box, the sphere of deep understanding.  My preferred paradigm for creative forces is that they work best when you go outside the box, look around, then bring some new stuff back into the box to see how it might fit with the known elements.
  • There’s definitely something to be said for resourcefulness inside the box; tinkering and gradual extension of awareness/understanding is a big piece of the discovery process.
  • Ratio of new stuff to known stuff needs to be right — ex: kid in play pen … dump a bushel of new toys into the play space and most kids will probably be overwhelmed and start to cry – not conducive to fun or productive processing.

The Take-Away:  As much as everyone would like to put a guaranteed process around it – there is no such kit or equation for innovation.  I’ve heard, though, that a reliable approach can include walks, naps, post-it-notes, random conversations, caffeinated beverages, nerf balls, staring out windows, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth.

Significant innovation — innovation beyond process improvement or cosmetics –requires more than a slice-and-dice of the existing known realm.  There needs to be at least a little bit of something new to add to the mix — a new element, perspective, relationship or energy to bring about a meaningful innovative result. … Can we all agree that at least one toe needs to be outside the box?

Post-Note: None of my ranting about the optimal orientation to the box applies to the awesome feature illustrations (above and below) by one of my favorite illustrators ever, John S. Dykes.