10 Tips for Innovating Out Of The Box

by Gary Van Deursen

10 Tips for Innovating Out Of The Box

Think “out of the box”…you’ll find you’re still inside a larger box!

Learning to think outside of the box is critical to innovation and creating competitive advantage. Creative thinking requires learning how to get beyond the real and perceived limiting barriers.

The expression “thinking out of the box” came from the nine dot puzzle by Henry Dudeney, where people were asked to connect three rows of three dots, with four straight lines, while never taking their pencil off of the paper. It could only be solved by extending the lines outside of the dot box. The image of thinking outside of the “box” has provided a useful metaphor to creative thinking in general and creating innovation in businesses.

Most large companies are structured with numerous constraints. One box is inside of another box. Business units are separated into product line teams. These teams are expected to innovate within the box defined by their area. Their product innovation is expected to fit inside of the existing category, pricing, manufacturing, and distribution constraints, and even the larger box of corporate goals and objectives.

About 96% of new product innovation is minimal evolutionary changes…with new features, line extensions, better ergonomics and styling. The revolutionary innovations, the real game changers, are also typically attempted to be created in the same constrained corporate box environment.

Some constraints can actually be useful in innovating by narrowing down the problem and in framing the challenge. Pushing the remaining boundaries and assumptions of any one of the limitations can create the needed opportunity for innovation.

One solution is to consider all constraints to only be a hypothesis, not necessarily a fact. This changes the “it can’t be done” to “we haven’t done it yet”.

Redefining the definition of the business that you are in, as well as what defines your product category should be explored from the view point of the end user. In my last post I reviewed redefining and growing the hammer category by creating a new demolition tool market. Another good example was changing a utility knife, a $7 commodity product. I simply added a folding serrated “sport” blade to it, to became a high end $27 Sport-Utility knife (see photo). From job site to camp site…this patented and TM registered concept became successful new SKUs, and carved out a whole new market.

Establishing a structured innovation process and eliminating the “boxes” is critical to all companies. Creating new products with evolutionary or revolutionary innovation is a strategic asset. But, it first requires identifying the “boxes”.

10 Tips for Innovating Out of the Box:

  1. Question all assumptions…push boundaries
  2. Get out of the office…empathize with end user problems
  3. Start with an innovative problem…not with a solution
  4. Listen to “voice of the customer” for product improvements and next generation
  5. Brainstorm and identify end user unarticulated wants, needs and opportunities…for revolutionary innovation
  6. Both problems and solutions must be relevant to the customer…keep the innovation relevant
  7. Perception is reality…use it to create innovative value propositions
  8. Think in terms of “I wish…” and “what if…”
  9. Allow time for concepts to evolve and change…and let them
  10. Change the limiting internal policies and politics…or circumvent them…and keep your resume updated


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Gary van Deursen is the former Corp. VP of Innovation & Design for Stanley Works (Stanley Tools, Bostitch, Husky, Mac, Proto, Vidmar, etc) and now leads Van Deursen LLC, an international award winning industrial design, innovation and new product consulting firm.

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