Innovation Inside the Box

Want to improve your company's innovation efforts? Stop brainstorming and work with what you already know.

How often are you asked to push yourself to discover breakthrough concepts? To start with a problem and then brainstorm creative solutions? To dream up new-to-the-world ideas by thinking “outside the box”? Probably every day.

But what if you could think “inside the box” and use what you already know to discover a virtually endless stream of consumable products and services?

In our new book "Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results" (Simon & Schuster, June 2013), Jacob Goldenberg and I reveal the simple innovation techniques and tools used by the most prolific inventors. Our comprehensive study of the most successful companies and their inventions proves that more innovation—and better and more rapid innovation—happens when you:

  • Work with what you know
  • Create solutions independent of problems, and
  • Use five simple tools to generate those solutions

The five tools — subtraction, unification, multiplication, dependency and division — form the basis of the innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). SIT techniques are based on patterns used by mankind for thousands of years to create new solutions. These patterns are embedded into products and services almost like DNA. SIT allows you to extract those patterns and reapply them to new products and services.

Each SIT technique guides you through the invention process in a different way:

  • Subtraction helps you innovate by removing a seemingly essential element. For example, the original Sony Walkman had the recording function subtracted, defying the logic of a recorder. Even Sony’s chairman and inventor of the Walkman, Akio Morita, was surprised by the market's enthusiastic response.
  • Unification reveals new opportunities by bringing together tasks within one component. A good example of unification is the use of the rear window defroster of a car as the antenna for the radio.
  • Multiplication lets you innovate by copying a component and modifying it in a way that may seem unnecessary or redundant. Many innovations in cameras are based on copying a component and then changing it. For example, a repeated flash when snapping a photo reduces red-eye.
  • Dependency opens up opportunities by correlating two previously unrelated attributes. As one attribute changes, another changes. Transition sunglasses, for example, get darker as the sun gets brighter.
  • Division helps you innovate by dividing out a component and replacing it in an unlikely location. Separating the heating function of an oven and placing it somewhere else in the kitchen creates a warming drawer.

Two Key Practices for Innovation

Using these patterns purposefully yields surprising results. Effective use relies on two key practices:

1. Re-train the way your brain thinks about problem solving. Most people start with a well-defined problem and then come up with solutions. Our method takes the opposite approach. We start with an abstract, conceptual solution and then work back to the problem it solves.

This process is called Function Follows Form. First documented in 1992 by psychologist Ronald Finke, Function Follows Form assumes there are two directions of thinking: from the problem to the solution and from the solution to the problem. Finke discovered people are better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem).

Imagine a baby’s bottle that changes color as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? Like most, you would instantly recognize that it would help to make sure you didn’t burn the baby with hot milk. Now imagine being asked, “How can we make sure we don’t burn a baby’s mouth with milk that is too hot?” How long would it take you to come up with a color-changing milk bottle? You might never arrive at such an idea.

Using our method forces you to derive and consider such a configuration. From there, you use your knowledge and experience to link the solution (color-changing baby’s bottle) back to its benefits. Therein lies the key to using the method: Apply one of the techniques to create a form, then take that form and find a function it can perform. You are predisposed to using this direction of thinking when you start with the solution.

2. Start with what you know. The second key idea is the starting point for innovative thinking. Research shows that something fascinating happens when we first hear about an innovative idea. We experience a sense of surprise – Gee, why didn’t I think of that?

Where does that sense of revelation come from? We tend to be most amazed with ideas that are right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. This thinking is counterintuitive because most people believe they need to be far outside their current domain to be innovative. Methods like brainstorming and SCAMPER use random stimulus to push you outside the box in search of new and inventive ideas. But the most surprising ideas are right nearby.

What we’ve found is that innovation is a skill that can be learned and mastered by anyone. By applying the methods of Systematic Inventive Thinking to your world, you will become more innovative, regardless of your starting point.

Drew Boyd is a 30-year industry veteran. He spent 17 years at Johnson & Johnson in marketing, mergers and acquisitions, and international development. Today, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media.

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