Thinking Inside the Box: Reversing the Innovation Myth

In order to innovate, you have to think outside the box, right? Meet a customer’s unmet need, or in the case of radical innovations like the iPod or Kindle, give them what they do not even know they need yet.

The real answer is just the opposite. Often true innovation comes from inside the box, from the employees you already have and related to a product or service you already offer. Even more often it is related to a process you might do every day, and employees can spot pain points and inefficiencies you may not even see. This is where innovation happens.

When this type of innovation occurs, you get good results and good solutions that make a real business impact.

True innovation - think inside the box

So, what does this thinking inside the box really look like?

Realize Innovations Share Common Patterns

The common pattern of all innovations is that they solve a problem. Whether that is a problem that a customer does not know they have (like the ability to carry thousands of songs in their pocket) or that they realize (like their car emits too much, and those emissions are harmful to the environment).

The solution to these problems often also lies in the product or process that already exists. It is simply a matter of rearranging those components or the order in which a process is completed.

By looking at a collection of similar products, services, or problems in a single field, you can see the common issues, and identify which ones are most urgent or important to solve, or which ones will have the greatest impact.

These patterns can be translated into a set of thinking tools, and those tools can then be used to create new and better ideas.

The Answer is in Front of You

There are two common principles to thinking inside the box. The first is that the answers to your pain points and issues are right in front of you.

According to the principle of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), the answer is to “look at an existing product and its characteristics rather than at customers and their unmet needs.” The products you have, the industry you are in, the services you provide all have common problems, and solving those problems by using what you already have is true innovation.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  • Multiplication: Add to a product or process a component that is the same as one already present, but change the added component in some way to make it more or different.

  • Division: Divide the product or process and its components, and rearrange them to create a new process or product.

  • Task Unification: Add a new task to an existing device, process, or component. This is like adding a better camera to the iPhone.

  • Attribute Dependency: Making it so that the color or other variable characteristic of the product does not affect its function.

There are, of course, other methods of accomplishing this. There is, however, one more principle.

Someone who is already a part of your team knows or can figure out the answer. There is probably no need for outside consultants or help. If you have hired competent people who know your industry and if they have been introduced to the problem and pain points you are trying to address, they probably already have ideas about how to fix them.

All you need to do is make sure they have the skills they need, and work to encourage behaviors that create great innovations.

The Closed World

Instead of focusing on many ideas, and trying to choose the best from them, the closed world approach to thinking inside the box limits the possibilities and focuses on the quality of ideas instead through directed ideation.

In other words, you are trying to solve one problem, like the best way to carry hundreds of books with you all the time. The solution is a tablet of sorts, something that already exists, but which needs a different type of screen, has different memory needs, and must have a battery that lasts for days and not hours.

This is how the Kindle was born, and even the iPod and the iPhone. The focus was a single principle or idea, and a current product (like a Walkman or a Blackberry) was analyzed, the same principles used, to create something new. The iPhone used multiplication: new capabilities and features were added to an existing device, the cell phone. The smart phone was born (just a decade ago by the way).

Qualitative Change

This is another principle in thinking inside the box: in this case the problem is either eliminated somehow, through the principle of subtraction, or it is turned around to be an advantage. Think of Apple eliminating the headphone jack on the iPhone 7: not only is the port a possible intake for water, but it converts digital sound to analog, which seems counterproductive. Eliminating the jack was disruptive, but long term it will turn into an advantage.

Function Follows Form

This is another backward way of thinking according to some, but it follows a simple principle: it just means, as mentioned above, that the process begins with an existing product or service. Customer needs that have been identified in the market, or ones they customer has not even realized yet are not ignored: they are just introduced later in the development process, and used to shape the final goals.

The Pattern

There are many other applications of this pattern of thinking. Entire courses have been created around it. However, overall the idea of thinking inside the box involves using certain templates to shape your ideas.

By removing choices instead of adding more, and focusing on the quality of those ideas in light of known needs and pain points, your company can move forward toward more innovation by thinking inside the box instead of outside. The best ideas are right in front of you, and your people are the ones to solve them. Think inside the box, and you may go farther than you think.