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Thinking Inside the Box

A new book on creativity turns the conventional approach to business innovation on its head.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Books about business innovation seem to arrive as quickly as ideas on a whiteboard in a brainstorming session. But Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results  (Simon & Schuster, 2013), by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, jumps out for its counterintuitive take on creativity.

In the book, Boyd, assistant professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati and former director of Johnson & Johnson’s Marketing Mastery program, and Goldenberg, professor of marketing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Business Administration, assert that thinking inside the box enhances idea generation. Thus, they argue, innovation initiatives should be limited to resources close at hand, and function should follow form—that is, we should start with a solution and then consider the problem it addresses, rather than vice versa. When I asked the authors why thinking inside the box is a more productive, reliable way to pursue business innovation than thinking outside the box, here’s what they said:

“Thinking outside the box is a complete myth. It is based on flawed research from the 1970s. Subsequent research shows that simply telling people to think outside the box does not improve their creative output. It sends people on cognitive wild goose chases.

“Thinking inside the box constrains the brain’s options and regulates how it produces ideas. By constraining and channeling our brains, we make them work both harder and smarter to find creative solutions. Contrary to what most people believe, the best ideas are usually nearby. Thinking inside the box helps you find these novel and surprising innovations.

“Innovation usually results from a set of five simple patterns:

• Subtraction: removing a component that was previously thought essential to a product or service, such as the elimination of the record function in the Sony Walkman
• Task unification: combining tasks within a product or service, such as warmth and deodorizing in Odor-Eaters socks
• Multiplication: copying an existing component, such as “picture-in-picture” TVs
• Division: separating a component from the product, such as the remote control
• Attribute dependency: making two previously independent attributes dependent in a meaningful way, such as a baby bottle that changes color when the liquid inside reaches the proper temperature

“For thousands of years, people embedded these patterns in their inventions, usually without realizing it. In our method, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), the patterns have been structured into techniques that enable creativity on demand. SIT takes a product or service and breaks it down into components. Then, you use one or more of the techniques to manipulate the components and generate new-to-the-world ideas. This allows you to tap into the very rich world inside the box.”

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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