When it’s time to think inside the box

by Kevin McFarthing

When it's time to think inside the boxIt’s a common call – we want more innovation, disruptive innovation, new options.  We need to think outside the box.

It often makes sense to think outside the box.  When the usual thinking hasn’t solved the problem, new approaches are needed.  After all, if the same people are sat at the same table trying to solve the same problem in the same way, they are likely to get the same result.

But there are times when thinking outside the box is the wrong thing to do.

I’ve had experience of several examples of this.  I was managing a large R&D group, and the divisional head challenged us to come up with viable options for new products in new areas of business.  There were, of course, limits to this.  We weren’t about to move from consumer healthcare to construction or aviation.  But that was it.

We took on the challenge with great enthusiasm and we did a great job.  The plan we came up with was costed; we had credible estimates for the potential revenue; we had outline implementation plans.  Our proposals beat the target.  My boss was very pleased.

Then – nothing.  The rest of the leadership hadn’t been engaged in the challenge.  The most common response was that most of the options were off strategy.  And they were right.  That’s because there was no part of the strategy that said we would search for new options.

What my boss had really wanted was an à la carte menu that other parts of the business could peruse and pick out what they liked.

This exercise actually had a negative effect.  It diminished enthusiasm; it made some people just that bit more cynical; it damaged efforts to be creative.  Suffice to say I learnt a lot.

Another company I knew very well established a very well-funded and talented team to explore new options outside of the current strategy.  They did indeed create such options.  The idea then was to transfer the projects to the mainstream businesses.  It failed.  The business groups rejected the opportunity because it was – wait for it – off strategy.  They were judged on what they did in the current year and what they projected for the next three.  They weren’t targeted on anything beyond that.

I also have experience of a medium sized company with a number of very capable and creative scientists, who again were challenged to come up with outside the box options.  They responded, but the potential products were not received well.  “That wasn’t what we wanted”.  Well, what did you want?  If you knew what you wanted, why didn’t you tell the team in the first place?

And here is the point.  The cases above are very good examples of when thinking inside the box is required.  The business leadership should create the box within which people can be creative and produce ideas, options, prototypes etc.  The box is defined in a way that makes sense for each business.  It should specify the areas of business that are on and off limits.  If there are particular performance requirements, they should be articulated.  Occasionally there are timelines involved – “we need products to launch in five years’ time”.

It’s often important to define what is NOT inside the box; which areas are off limits, which business areas will not be considered

If you’re on the receiving end in the R&D labs, you should be wary of responding without question to an open call for disruptive, “outside the box” innovation.  Ensure that other parts of the business are fully on board.  Get as much clarity on the shape and boundaries of the box.  If it isn’t clear, then go back and check on the acceptability of the options at a very early stage, before too much time, money and energy has been invested

Don’t be fooled by the terminology; thinking inside the box doesn’t have to mean conventional and the same as before.  It should mean being creative, novel and original within specified boundaries.

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions and also has experience in life sciences. Follow @InnovationFixer

One comment

  1. Really enjoyable and timely article Kevin, to challenge constantly, to clarify, to place any (new) work in the context of its need and align outcomes with strategic clarification. Thanks

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