Resourceful Innovation from Inside the Box

by Rachel Audige

There are so many clichés around innovation but the one that causes me the most grief is this idea of “thinking outside the box”.

‘Ever asked someone to show you how you actually go about thinking outside the box? I have. There is a moment of silence and then a squirm and an awkward smile. At a pinch, the brave might tell you it means “being open-minded” and “brainstorming without judgement” or they may broaden this to speak about open innovation programs but, more times than not, they’re not really sure what to do with it.

So where does this expression come from? Many Innovation Excellence contributors know that the “box” comes from the work of an American psychologist, Joy Paul Guilford, back in the 1970s using the puzzle of 9-dots that had to be connected in 4 straight lines without lifting your pen. The fact that the solution involved going outside the square formed by the dots led to the idea that to be creative, you had to “think outside the square.” The idea spread like wildfire.

The paradox is that subsequent research showed that when people were explicitly told that the solution lay outside the square their chances of  success in solving the puzzle only increased by a fraction.

In the same way, I have seen over and over that people told to do out-of-the-box thinking are less likely to come up with resourceful, inventive and importantly, feasible ideas, than those who impose an artificial constraint on the ideation process and work with what they have.

Worse still – as many of us know – subject to the rigour of the facilitator in the convergence process – they are likely to generate a considerable list of ideas that are more or less out of reach. The team feels empowered and hyped but months later when nothing has happened to their ideas, they are cynical and will boot out the next consultant or innovation lead who wants to shift the default thinking and talk innovation.

So how would we get back inside the box?

Systematic Inventive Thinking (S.I.T.) is grounded in a belief in the power of constraints to foster creativity.

1. We impose an artificial constraint on the creative process and force ourselves to only solve the problem with the resources that are in the problem space, the ‘box’. We call this the ‘Closed World’ principle.

2. Once we have defined our closed world, we start by listing all the resources we have available to us and then work with them one by one systematically using the SIT thinking tools.

3. The tools are derived from the observation of innovation templates identified in the best innovations and reverse engineered to be applied to any situation/process/product…

4. The process we follow is the reverse of design thinking; we work form to function and start with an existing situation, apply a thinking tool and then evaluate with benefits and feasibility filters.

5. Throughout the process then follow a path of most resistance and prevent ourselves from adding something new.

The value of this?

Well most of us are trying to do “more with less” so harnessing what you have is desirable. What is more, the ideas tend to be more feasible to implement as you are working with what you actually have available – not what you wish you had. By its very nature, the outcome of this inside-the-box-thinking, tends to be intrinsically sustainable. I call it “resourceful innovation”; suddenly innovation no longer rhymes with adding more but rather knowing how to use what you have inventively.

Another big plus? It’s your Closed World – no one else’s – so your idea is more likely to be original.

Working within the closed world is just the beginning. There is another important obstacle to Inside-the-box-thinking and that is busting a cognitive bias that stops us imagining new possibilities for existing resources. That’s where the SIT tools come in…

Whatever the chosen toolset of an organisation, I am encouraging clients to offer alternate ways of thinking to their teams. Each methodology has its sweet spot and they need to work them harder to know what works best when.

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Rachel Audigé runs S.I.T. Australia, based in Melbourne. With 25 years in international marketing and 10 years driving innovation communities in a corporate context, she is passionate about helping businesses, regardless of size or industry, unleash their innovative potential and learn to innovate on demand. Visit the global website on www.sitsite.com and follow @SITInnovation 

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