Creativity Hides Inside the Box
This book explains Systematic Inventive Thinking, our inside-the-box way of thinking about creativity and innovation.
But before we take our first steps together, let’s make sure that you’re on board with our basic premise. After all, we’re challenging today’s single biggest myth about creativity: that it requires outside-the-box thinking. We want to convince you that the opposite is true. Creativity is rarely achieved by broadening your horizons. You’re much more likely to become distracted by distant stars in a faraway galaxy and come up with concepts that are irrelevant to the here and now. More important, elevating your vision encourages abstract thinking—that is, thinking with no basis in the concrete. Such ideas tend to be clichéd rather than creative, as the test of truly innovative ideas comes when you implement them. As the (clichéd) saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Let’s start by understanding the inside-the-box thinking of the Closed World.
The nine-dot puzzle and the phrase “thinking outside the box” became metaphors for creativity and spread like wildfire in marketing, management, psychology, the creative arts, engineering, and personal improvement circles. There seemed to be no end to the insights that could be offered under the banner of thinking outside the box. Speakers, trainers, training program developers, organizational consultants, and university professors all had much to say about the vast benefits of outside-the-box thinking. It was an appealing and apparently convincing message.
Solving this problem requires people to literally think outside the box. Yet participants’ performance was not improved even when they were given specific instructions to do so. That is, direct and explicit instructions to think outside the box did not help.
That this advice is useless when actually trying to solve a problem involving a real box should effectively have killed off the much more widely disseminated—and therefore, much more dangerous—metaphor that out-of-the-box thinking spurs creativity. After all, with one simple yet brilliant experiment, researchers had proven that the conceptual link between thinking outside the box and creativity was a myth.
USING THE CLOSED WORLD TO OPEN UP CREATIVE POSSIBILITIES
The Closed World is based on the idea that you look inward rather than outward, and that this propels you toward the virgin territory of truly creative ideas—ideas that are both original and useful.
One way to sense the Closed World is by moving closer to the world of the problem. Look inside rather than outside.
Make no mistake: we are not saying that every single element in the Closed World of the problem can be used to devise a solution. We argue, instead, that if a solution exists, then the solution that uses elements from the Closed World will be more creative.
Which brings us to another important point: the purpose of the Closed World is to teach creativity first and foremost. It’s not to always come up with the best solution to a problem at hand. Sometimes the best solution to a problem can actually be found outside the box. But if your goal is to systematize creativity, you have to operate within the confines of the Closed World. That is key.
When Less Becomes More: The Subtraction Technique
Don’t just take out troublesome components. Taking out bad components to improve the performance is not using the Subtraction technique. Rather, it is fine-tuning the characteristics of the product to change the way it works. For example, taking out the sugar in soda to create a sugar-free drink certainly creates a new version of the original beverage. But this is not Subtraction. This is simply changing the recipe. The same is true when you turn caffeinated coffee into decaffeinated.
Avoid immediately replacing the subtracted component. Eliminating an essential component can assault your senses and sensibilities. This is a time when your old nemesis Structural Fixedness will kick in at its strongest. The discomfort of removing an essential element is so powerful that our minds immediately rush in to “rescue” the product or service. (Remember what we mean by “essential”: not the most or least important element, but something in the middle.) You may find yourself instantly searching to fill in the void with an alternative component. Be careful. Sometimes removing the critical, core function ruins the product to the point where you cannot recover. Taking out a core function can indeed lead to innovative ideas, as we saw with the Sony Walkman, but these situations are rare. You should almost always plan on a replacement (from the Closed World) when taking out a core function.
Avoid simple “unbundling.” Keep in mind that subtraction is not the same as a common marketing technique called “unbundling” or “defeaturing.” Unbundling is taking out features or downgrading the quality of components of a product or service. It is taking value out of the product or service so that you can set a lower price. Companies do this to reach a broader segment of the market, especially those customers who are price sensitive. For example, television manufacturers take their high-end, premium-model TV and reduce the quality of the speakers, the display resolution, and other factors. They assign a new model number and reduce its price. Another example of unbundling happens when tour operators offer a lower-standard tour package (using cheaper hotels and charter flights) at a lower price. The destination is the same, but the amenities have been downgraded. Notice that no new benefit is created by unbundling. Benefits are removed so that the price can be set lower. In Subtraction, on the other hand, you always get a new benefit after a component is removed (and perhaps replaced).
Divide and Conquer: The Division Technique
Rearrange divided components in both space and time. When dividing out components of a product, process, or service, rearrange the components back into the Closed World in both space and time. For a rearranged space, you would place the divided component in some new physical location, such as putting the refrigerator compressor outside the home. For rearranged time, you would consider ways to rearrange the product or service so that the divided component “appears” at different times from other components. It stays in the same physical location but is there only at specific times. Time-sharing condominiums are one example of dividing through time.
Change “resolution” if you are having trouble. If rearranging components in the Closed World seems odd or difficult, you may need to change your component list. You can do this using what we call “Resolution.” Think of Resolution as your distance from the Closed World. By zooming in, you can examine something close up and see its individual parts and components in great detail. Alternatively, you can “zoom out” to view how an object exists within a larger context. By making your Closed World smaller or larger, you can adjust your list of components to come up with a better Division-inspired innovation.
Here’s how “Resolution” works: imagine sitting in your living room. You can see the furniture, the light fixtures, the windows, the floor, and the paintings hanging on the walls. By applying Division here you would consider separating or dividing these “components” from one another or from the room as a whole. Now zoom in on one of these components—say, the lighting fixture hanging from the ceiling. Make that, rather than the entire living room, your Closed World. Identify the individual components: The lightbulb. The chain that attaches the fixture to the ceiling. The on-off switch. Consider how you might use Division with these.
Finally, trying zooming out from the living room so that your Closed World includes all the homes in your neighborhood. What components do you see? Individual houses? Cars? Fire hydrants? Sidewalks? Trees? How could these components be divided in a way that adds value?
Be Fruitful and Multiply: The Multiplication Technique
Don’t simply add something new to a product or service. Many companies fall into the trap of adding new features to a product to outshine their competitors. Addition is not one of the five techniques in our method. Merely adding components doesn’t give you the multiplier effect. Companies that rely on addition as a way to innovate are frequently guilty of “feature creep.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, continuously adding bells and whistles to a product or service—usually in reaction to the marketplace, a customer request, or a competitor’s product—is not necessarily a good idea.
When multiplying a component, be sure to change it. Multiplying an existing component without making any changes will cause the same types of problems as addition (simply adding a new component). You get more complexity and more moving parts without adding value. To go back to our razor blade example, adding ten blades to a razor isn’t really innovating.
People typically make this particular error because they didn’t first create a list of component attributes. And remember, the key is to make a change to the copied component(s) in a way that doesn’t make logical sense—at first. This sets the stage for using function follows form: connecting the seemingly strange configuration to an innovative and useful new concept.
Try making multiple copies of a component, not just one. When learning Multiplication for the first time, people tend to play it safe by making only a single copy of a component. This may be a by-product of fixedness (both structural and functional). Start with multiplying a component by 2. But to gain expertise, practice making multiple copies of a component. Try 3, 16, 251/2;. Select a number arbitrarily. Make it weird! Creating these additional copies—each of which you’ve changed in a nonobvious way—expands your thinking and opens up new possibilities.
New Tricks for Old Dogs: The Task Unification Technique
Don’t “play it safe” by assigning new tasks only to components that are obviously up for the job. Alternate between assigning tasks to components that make intuitive sense and randomly picking components from your Closed World list to take on a new task. Nonintuitive components are much more likely springboards for creative breakthroughs. Remember the hotel in Seoul, South Korea? It enlisted taxi drivers to identify repeat hotel guests so that the front desk greeted then accordingly.
Make sure you identify the obvious components in the Closed World. Look for the ones that are so obvious that you may be missing them. Don’t allow Functional Fixedness to limit your imagination. Seek help from others to avoid missing any components. Ask customers, for example, what they see in the Closed World. They may perceive it differently from you and may offer suggestions that wouldn’t have occurred to you. If you are not an expert in the area, use online search engines such as Google to add to your understanding of both internal and external components. Searching for “aircraft components,” for example, will retrieve a rich array of resources about internal components in that particular Closed World. Then imagine people who interact routinely with aircraft—passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, and flight attendants, among others—to begin compiling your list of external components.
Don’t confuse aggregating or changing functions with assigning new ones. A Swiss Army knife is a collection of multiple tools, each of which has a separate function. Likewise, a multipurpose wristwatch bundles together a timekeeping device, GPS, compass, calendar, and alarm. In both cases, although individual components have been aggregated into a single device, each component continues to perform only its original task without adding another. This is not Task Unification but “Task Aggregation.”
Clever Correlations: The Attribute Dependency Technique
Don’t mix up components and variables. Unlike the first four techniques in this book, the Attribute Dependency technique uses variables instead of components. This is the most common mistake
students make when learning the technique. Remember that variables (another word for “attributes”) are the things that change about a product.
Take the time to make a proper table. We know it takes more work, but a well-constructed table will help you make this challenging technique more manageable. Our students sometimes like to cut corners and skip making the table. We suggest otherwise. In the long run, it will save you time and will help make sure you don’t miss exciting new innovations.
Once you choose a cell, try different dependency types. Two variables can be dependent on each other in different ways. For example, in a “positive” dependency, one variable increases and the other increases too. Now imagine flipping that. One variable increases and the other decreases. Transitions sunglasses demonstrate this idea well. As the outdoor light increases, the transparency of the lens decreases (gets darker).
Creativity is a cognitive task. Simulating the task in unfamiliar, random situations builds “innovation muscle” for when you need it in real situations. Practice makes perfect.
These techniques can be used individually to great effect, but more of their potential can be unleashed by people working in teams. Given the complexity of most of the challenges confronting the corporate world these days, only rarely can innovation be generated through an individual effort.
As you practice and perfect your innovation skills, we hope you will join the many others using the method to create valuable new ideas, products, processes, and services. Mankind has shaped these tools over thousands of years of solving everyday problems. Now, in your hands, these tools, applied properly, have the potential to make you and your organization more creative than ever before.