Get Creative — On Demand

Forget about thinking outside the box. To create breakthrough change, work with what's familiar, say two experts. Try their five simple ways to spark innovation.
Sharon Kahn |  June 27, 2013
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When it comes to innovation, somewhere the world has gone terribly wrong. “The accepted view of creativity is you have to go crazy,” says Jacob Goldenberg, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and coauthor of “Inside the Box...A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results” (2013, Simon & Schuster). In fact, if you stay within the familiar world — rather than brainstorm ’outside the box’ — he promised, “you will have much better success.”

What’s more, rather than an extraordinary gift that you’re born with, creativity can be learned, just like other skills, according to coauthor Drew Boyd, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Without realizing it, over thousands of years people have developed patterns to guide them to creativity,” he said. “Our approach lets people extract the core focus of a situation and become creative on demand,” he added.

The five techniques to innovation, each practiced “inside the box,” are:

  1. Subtraction. The inventor examines the list of components and removes something that was previously thought essential. Discount airlines subtracted frills. ATMs are banks without the employees or buildings.
  2. Division. This approach is subtraction taken a step farther. Once the component is removed, it’s simply placed somewhere else — within the “box” or the immediate environment, but outside the device. TV controls that were divided from the console gave us the remote control. Thumb drives transferred data storage from a PC to a pocket device.
  3. Multiplication. Here, innovators duplicate a component of the original but change it in some way. Additional wheels on bicycles result in training wheels. “Picture-in-picture” televisions allow sports fans to follow two games simultaneously.
  4. Task unification. This technique brings together two (or more) tasks previously thought unrelated. Think Odor-Eater socks meant to keep feet warm and deodorize at the same time, or lotions that moisturize and add sunscreen.
  5. Attribute dependency. This method involves a trigger that allows traits previously thought unrelated to correlate — as one thing changes, something else changes. For example, some variable windshield wipers alter their speed as the amount of rain changes. Transition sunglasses darken or lighten depending upon the amount of brightness.

In each of these cases, creativity began with something that the innovator was familiar with. And changes were made “inside the box,” or at least in the immediate neighborhood.

Brick Walls to Creativity

One of the biggest barriers to creativity is what the authors call “fixedness,” or the tendency to see objects or processes only in a traditional way. Boyd and Goldenberg urge innovators to play the “what if” game with components that one assumes are essential. When Apple stripped down the MP3 player to its basics, it created the iPod. Procter & Gamble took the detergent out of detergents, leaving only perfume and binders, giving the world Fabreze.

Contradictions represent another barrier to creativity, but one that the authors say can be a true pathway to innovation. A contradiction is a situation where two ideas are connected yet directly opposed. For example, during the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans waited out a long siege in a monastery, relying on airdrops of food, ammunition, and medicine for sustenance. But eventually the Republican forces ran out of parachutes, threatening their lifeline. The contradiction: the requirement of parachutes to deliver supplies and the lack of parachutes.

The ingenious solution: The pilots began attaching supplies to live turkeys. When dropped out of the plane, the birds flapped their wings, slowing their descent and ensuring safe delivery of their supplies — as well as fresh turkey meat.

Boyd and Goldenberg insist that their methods work with all kinds of processes, from training sessions to creative writing and music composition and performance. “We’ve taught the method to third graders and children with cognitive disabilities as well as corporate executives,” says Boyd. “You can apply the technique to anything that can be broken into components.”

Added Goldenberg: “We’ve seen the reaction so many times. At first people find ’thinking inside the box’ counterintuitive. Then they say: ’I get it! Why am I just finding out about this now?’”

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