Creative Thinking: in the Box

“Let’s all try to think a little more out of the box.”
I am pretty sure many of us have heard this cliche in a meeting or two (or two hundred). But should we really be looking out of the box when we are looking for more creative ideas?

I think not. I think you should work within the box. Greater creative results can be achieved by thinking in the box. Your box. And here’s three steps to help you do this:

1. Stay in your box.

First answer this. Who do you think understands your business best?

A) You (and your colleagues)
B) Some external consultant

Popular myth has it that Albert Einstein was a mediocre student with a lousy job when he stumbled upon his general theory of relativety. True, he may have been somewhat of a misfit. And he couldn’t find a decent job either. He wasn’t some clueless nitwit though. His knowledge and expertise of the theoretical physics of his days were second to none.

Our brain doesn’t solve problems just by thinking really hard. It needs stuff to work with. Useful stuff: knowlegde, experience, insights, and a deeper understanding of underlying stuctures and mechanisms. Our brain needs relevant experience and knowledge.

Relevant experience and knowledge do not come cheaply. The best cars are designed by people who know a LOT about cars and design and spend a lot of time learning this stuff. The best recipes are created by people who spend a LOT of time cooking.

Back to our initial question. If you answered ‘B’ perhaps you should reconsider the business your in or consider a dedicated investment in expertise. I’m assuming that most of us answered ‘A’. And if you did. Why would you hire someone else to do your creative thinking for you?

2. Constrain your box.

Now consider these two questions:

A) What do I need to achieve?
B) What resources can I use?

It seems logical that greater creative results can be achieved by not limiting the scope of our creativity and the resources at its disposal. A bigger possibility space and more resources to play with lead to more (and better) possible ideas and solutions, right?

Not exactly. Experimental research has shown time and time again that constraining both the purpose and the resources of the creative process improves its output quantitively as well as qualitively.

In other words: you get more and better ideas if you have less to work on and work with.

There’s two reasons why. First, having a clearly defined goal or achievement helps motivate the brain and focus its attention. Our brain needs to be motivated. Creative thinking without meaningfulness quickly becomes an exercise in frivolity. Second, having only limited resources at our disposal forces our brains to rethink their use in new ways.

Here’s a thought experiment to underline both lines of reasoning.

Think of a kid with all the toys in the world including dozens of large boxes full of lego bricks. You simply ask the kid to play as much as he likes and do whatever he feels like. Now think of another kid that owns only one small box of lego bricks and no other toys. You tell her: ‘could you build me the most beautiful house you can imagine with it?’

Which of the two do you think will surprise you most with her creativity?

Prahalad named this constrained box the ‘Innovation Sandbox’. His analogy is an interesting one: the constrains of a sandbox are inflexible (usually made of wood or concrete) but the resources within (usually sand and water) are malleable and can be creativy shaped into many wonderful shapes. Prahalad cites some wonderful examples of how extreme constraints have yielded extreme innovative leaps forward in – amongst other things – health care solutions.

Now go back to my initial two questions and with this in mind try to constrain your answers.

3. Shake your box.

Quickly answer this question:
It’s raining outside. What should you bring along to stay dry?

There’s a pretty good chance you just answered ‘Umbrella’. Most of do. Why do we tend to come up with similar solutions and the most obvious ideas most of the time? Because our brain is lazy. Our brain likes to give us the answer that requires the least amount of thinking. And that makes sense. Thinking is hard work and requires a lot of energy. Energy that could also be used for other purposes.

What makes matters worse, the first answer that pops up (the one that required the least amount of thinking) tends to be the ones our brain likes to stick to. The quicker this ‘obviously right solution’ popped up, the harder it becomes for our brain to even consider alternatives.

Hold on. It gets ever worse. Over time our brain develops mental pathways – thinking mechanisms – that it likes to use over and over again. These pathways become well worn tracks that run deeper and deeper each time our brain uses them. The more often our brains uses them, the less likely we are to be creative and change the way we think.

Our brain is an wonderful machine. It is capable of some of the most amazing feats of creativity. But it is also notoriously lazy. It is good to know that our brain can be trained and get a little less lazy.

How do you train your brain? How can you force your brain to take different thinking routes? How do you open up new pathways that lead to awesome no-yet-invented solutions and creative business ideas?

  • Innovate the way you think: change your thinking routines by changing some of your daily routines (hard)
  • Consciously reject the first thing that comes to mind at your next brain storm. (harder)
  • Question your most basic assumptions. (hardest)

I’m sure many of you would like some more detailed exercises and tools to help you do this. To get you started. Here’s a quick exercise you can try for yourself (I got this assignment myself as a student 15 years ago.)

Design a train tricket from Amsterdam to Paris without using writing (letters and numbers). The ticket should tell you if it’s first class or second class, if it is smoking or non-smoking, the date and time of both departure and arrival and if the train ticket is a one-way or a two-way ticket.

I will write a little more about in-the-box creativity in the coming weeks. Don’t hesitate to remind me if I forget. Just like my brains, I am notoriously lazy too.

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