Innovating across the box

One of the most widely used concept in the innovation realm is “thinking out of the box”. In this post I am going to comment an interesting proposal from Phil McKinney, called “Box Think”, where he proposes to indeed think outside the box, but also in parallel with thinking inside the box.

First of all let me elaborate a little, because this “out of the box” concept is very familiar now to many people, specially related to creative thinking, but where does it come from? As Phil explains in one of his “Killer Innovations” shows on the matter, the term probably comes from that game where you need to connect all nine dots in a square without lifting the pen and using the fewest straight lines (more information here). If you don’t know the solution, stop here!!! Most of you already know that the trick is extending the lines outside the square… so, to solve the problem, you need to go “out of the box”. Did you know this was the origin of the term? I didn’t…

But how can we better relate this “box” to our life or our businesses. You can imagine the box represents the limit of our understanding or our way of working, the constraints that limit us, as Phil puts it. We can think the box has opaque walls which don’t allow us to look outside, limiting the possibilities of our actions. But not only that, because as we are so used to having the box out there, we don’t even realise it exists, making us unaware of the actual constraints we are subject to.

What Phil Mckinney is proposing, in what I believe is a very interesting approach, is to become aware of the box and actually use it to our benefit for creative thinking, combining outside the box and inside the box thinking. The box represents our constraints, what we cannot do, we cannot spend, the regulations we need to stick to, the lack of resources, etc. These limitations can be real or perceived and both are equally important, because sometimes what we believe we cannot do, although we don’t even know why, is as limiting as a real physical or legal constraint.

The first step in the “box think” process is, of course, identifying the problem or unmet need we want to propose a solution for. As with any good creative innovation methodology (at least in my opinion), defining well the problem statement is mandatory. Once you have established the issue you want to solve or improve, the next step is identifying those limiting constraints that define our “playfield”, the “boundary conditions” as we say in Physics. Of course you should focus on the constraints related to your problem statement. Once we have a clear idea of where we are, we can move to the next step.

The approach then implies running two parallel exercises, one of them thinking outside the box and another one inside the box. The team thinking inside the box needs to understand the constraints and propose ways to work around them to improve the situation (legally, of course!); for instance, if you have a budget limit, how could you improve your use of the available resources. On the other hand, the outside the box team needs to think as if there were no limitations, no constraints, can you imagine that? Think the walls of the box suddenly become transparent and nothing limits your vision. What would you do if we assume we could do anything?

Finally, the last step of the ideation process would be to mix and rank the best ideas from the two approaches. You can use different teams working in parallel (my preferred implementation) or the same team working first on one approach and then the other, but the idea is following the two paths working towards the same goal, solving the same problem statement. Of course, in the meeting point you can combine ideas from both teams and, as Phil always says, don’t forget to rank and select the best ideas to take forward.

My intention with this post is not giving a detailed description of “Box Think”, as you can find it  in Phil McKinney’s Killer Innovation website and podcast, including specific techniques, resources and examples (you can start here). What I want is to make you think a little, because I believe there is a general belief that you can only be truly innovative if you think outside the box. But I believe this is a limitation on its own, building another box by assuming we always need crazy ideas. Don’t misunderstand me, crazy ideas are great, but we should remember that very interesting innovations can be generated by thinking around the constraints, inside the box. I believe this is the most interesting aspect of Box Think, reminding us that both in and out are useful approaches, and combining them is possibly the best approximation. So, identify your box and use it to your advantage!


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