Thinking Outside the Box About “Outside the Box”

Now is the time to prepare
January 8, 2019

Thinking Outside the Box About “Outside the Box”

Guest post by Bill Fanelli

Last fall I attended a workshop led by author, marketing consultant, and University professor Drew Boyd. He challenged my thinking about innovation. He proclaimed, “Outside the Box brainstorming is a myth!” He went on to cite the research about the efficacy of classic brainstorming sessions. There is no advantage of a brainstorming group over the same number of individuals working alone. Additionally, the quality of ideas of the group is lower than if each person would have worked alone.

In my 37 years in business, I have felt the initial excitement participating in these sessions, followed by the inevitable feelings of frustration and malaise. Rather than innovative ideas, we produced ideas that represented the lowest common denominator of our collective thinking. The work felt more like the output of many committees. As comedian Milton Berle once said: “A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours.” I was ripe to hear a clear alternative to my innovation paradigm. Thinking outside the box about “outside the box” is obviously…Inside the Box.

Inside the Box is the name of the book authored by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg. The fundamental premise is that most real innovation comes from looking at what’s already in front of you, what you already know, and re-imagining the relationship between the pieces and parts. Instead of going outside of what you know, constrain your idea work within a “Closed World” around what you know. The authors give many examples of inside the box from sports (Dick Fosbury) to music (Les Paul) to architecture (Bruce Graham.) They also share many compelling stories from the work of their company, Systematic Inventive Thinking, with major corporations as they helped them to deliver tangible results in the form of new products and services.

For those of us mere mortals not invited to the Creative Class Club, the authors demonstrate that real innovation is not the exclusive domain of a gifted few, but rather the application of proven processes. Drew shared 5 commonly used processes at the workshop (They are also well-described in the book):

  • Subtraction – List the core components or steps, and then remove a key component. Re-imagine the process or product with the remaining pieces. Example: Removing a back up battery from a surgical medical device (making it much lighter and easier to manufacture) and connecting it to a back-up battery of another device that is always present.
  • Division – List the components as above, and then re-arrange the parts. An alternative is to divide the components into smaller pieces while preserving the function of the whole product or process. Example: Les Paul’s invention of multi-track recording.
  • Multiplication – List the components as above, and then multiply one of the parts, while changing one attribute of that part. Example: Architect Bruce Graham’s design of the Sears Tower in Chicago.
  • Task Unification – List the components as above. Choose one component and add another function to what it already does. Example: Scientist Louis Van Ahn’s creation of the Captcha internet security system and using our Captcha interactios to digitize150,000 old books per year.
  • Attribute dependency – Identify those components that can change with the change of an environmental variable and then visualize a new dependency. Examples: Coffee lids that change color according to the temperature of the contents. Product pricing that instantly varies with current demand in a market place.

Recently, I’ve been hired to help a local university with strategy execution.  We are using a well-known strategy execution process that uses classic brainstorming methods for both definition of goals and also to create leading indicator measures. The given process would ask members of the Enrollment Team, “What is it you’ve never done before?”, an indicator of an outside-the-box perspective.  I just couldn’t do it!  So instead, I decided to practice the inside-the-box approach. I asked several thought-starter questions that explore the inside of their box: 

  • “Look for bright spots: Can you think of  time when you or someone else positively influenced someone to apply and/or enroll at your school?  Can you think of a time when you persuaded someone to stay at the university after it was learned that they wanted to leave?  What happened in these situations?
  • Sketch out a process map  that charts the steps a prospect takes to gain interest in your university, apply, and then enroll.  Also in that map, sketch out possible and existing marketing activities to engage prospects.  
  • Across the steps of the process, what steps can be:
    • Be eliminated?
    • Be multiplied?
    • Be re-arranged?
    • Be combined?”

Not perfect by any means, but as the authors urge in their final chapter on page 224, “Practice Makes Perfect”. It’s continual practice that will help me break through my fixedness, i.e., my tendency to think that the only way to do things is what I am familiar with or what tradition says to do. I owe a big thank you  to authors Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, who helped me break through my fixedness about brainstorming and innovation, and rather, look inside myself and inside the box of my clients for innovative ideas.

Article originally posted on Fanelli Pathways.