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Thinking Inside the Box

By Julian Mercer

We often tell our teams to “think outside the box,” hoping for that rare flash of insight or inspiration that opens the door to a brilliant new product or solution. Such unicorns are rare, indeed, and having to shoot down ideas that are impractical or too far outside the company’s vision of itself can be frustrating to the manager and demoralizing to the team.

On the other hand, we’ve all experienced the reality that the need to overcome constraints is what drives creativity and innovation. Recognizing those constraints — and applying known solutions and proven methods in a new way to overcome them — is how most innovation occurs.

Understanding the operative constraints focuses the innovative mind, and allows one to look at a problem or opportunity in a different way. What can we do within the confines of these constraints? Can we add a new capacity or feature? Or can we eliminate a constraint? How? And perhaps most importantly, how can we take a proven idea and apply it to a new situation or different context to our advantage? This is how “thinking inside the box” works in practice.

It would be a mistake to think that “thinking inside the box” is not about creativity, or that an “inside the box” innovation can’t be as satisfying or successful as an “outside the box” moonshot ideation. “Inside the box” as a process makes it easier for teams to innovate collectively and incrementally, because everyone starts from the same reference point, and working together with the same boundary conditions to build on and improve each other’s ideas. Everyone who contributes feels invested and empowered, and will be inspired to keep contributing their ideas and suggestions.

By the same token, constraints are only a starting point, and your “box” of constraints shouldn’t be so restrictive that it demotivates or discourages innovative thinking. Market research and customer data, for example, can tell a useful story about the needs and interests of existing and targeted customers. But they reinforce insights that have already been recognized, and most likely reflect market responses to innovations that have already been actualized. Steve Jobs got it right when he said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So, use data and market research as information and not to set boundary constraints.

An “inside the box” process focus can be a good starting point that provides a constraint-based brainstorming model that keeps everyone in closer alignment with the possible, and gives your team a foundation for thinking creatively with confidence.

So how do you “think inside the box,” and what is the process? It starts by defining and sharing the constraints that define the walls of your box. What is the goal or desired outcome? What skills, capabilities and tools are available to work with? What are the time and resource constraints? What has been tried, and what was successful and why did other things fail?

Once you have built your box, it becomes possible to expand the inquiry and productively engage in “outside the box” thinking informed by those constraints. Can we make the product or process better (e.g., bigger or smaller, lighter or heavier, more attractive, more rugged, more energy and resource efficient, fewer defects, more recyclable, etc.?) Can we use it (or the technology in it) in a new or different way? How can we improve its availability, affordability, reliability, or repairability?

You can also frame questions as a catalyst for thinking that takes you beyond a narrow focus on incremental improvements to performance, price or reliability. Questions such as “what is it that kids love that we can reimagine for an adult market?” “What are the biggest problems facing remote workers and how can we alleviate them?” Or something more focused on current business: “What is the biggest hassle experienced by those who use our product or service?”

Achieving a balance between “inside the box” and “outside the box” thinking can open the door to truly breakthrough ideas, and constitutes an alternative approach to brainstorming that some business advisors refer to as “box thinking.” The key is framing problem statements that challenge your teams to look at the problem in both ways. The challenge is knowing when to let the group venture outside the bounds of the box, which is a judgement call based on your people, how well you’ve prepared them, and what they can bring as individuals to the process. But by starting the process with a shared set of goals and understanding of constraints (i.e., starting “inside the box”), the team is more likely to generate the collective synergy that results in great solutions and innovative new products.

Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a semi-retired executive in the technology sector, with more than 30 years’ experience as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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