Thinking inside the box

The key to being consistently innovative is to create a new form for something familiar and then to find a function it can perform.

This is what Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldeberg say about the true nature of innovation. They are not just talking about building better mousetraps.

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.

Our method works by taking a product, concept, situation, service or process and breaking it into components or attributes. Using one of five techniques, innovators can manipulate the components to create new-to-the-world ideas that can then be put to valuable use.

The five techniques the authors recommend are:

Subtraction – Remove seemingly essential elements

Task unification – Bring together unrelated tasks or functions

Multiplication – Copy a component and then alter it

Division – Separate the components of a product or service and rearrange them

Attribute dependency – Make the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment

The key to being consistently innovative is to create a new form for something familiar and then to find a function it can perform. That is why, when we first hear about a new idea, we often experience a sense of disappointment with ourselves: Gee, why didn’t I think of that? The most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world.

Inventions can be extraordinary, but invention isn’t an extraordinary event or an activity for a specialized group. Nor is creativity reserved for the gifted and talented. It’s a skill that can be learned and mastered by anyone, if approached properly. Like so much else in life, the more it’s practiced, the more skillful at it we become.

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