Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Don't think outside the box. Just think inside different boxes.

I can't stand the term "think outside the box".

Most managers or leaders use it as some kind of cure all expression. Some super smart way to charge their workers to innovate. "Hey guys we need some fresh ideas to make money, think outside the box."

Problem is, even telling your employees to do something like this is the exact opposite of what you want to do.

Here's 4 great reasons why.

Name things that are white

The book Made to Stick brought up the example of:

1. Give yourself 15 seconds to name as many things that are white that you can think of.
2. Now give yourself 15 seconds to name as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of.

Most people find the second one easier. I've tried it with just naming foods.

1. Just start naming foods. Go.

And people start to get stuck at like 20 foods.

2. Tell them to list food in their fridge, and now they have a breakthrough.

It's neat, but it goes to show you that people need some kind of constraint or anchor before their brain can start to rev up and get creative or start contributing.

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This

I've brought up this book before. I highly recommend it as a book to understand creativity better. In one section the author, Luke Sullivan, describes a process he would use to come up with headlines for an ad.

So here's a guy often challenged probably to "think outside the box". But instead of just sitting their staring into space thinking about the killer headline or two. He comes up with hundreds of headlines for one product.

But he does it with constraints.

Bourbon was an example. He had to come up with a headline.

So he started with the constraint of aging bourbon. This bourbon takes 9 years. So he creates dozens of headlines and false starts just about "9 years". "Order a drink that takes 9 years to get", "Like to hear how it's made? Do you have 9 years?", and on and on

What about 9 years can be altered? He then makes it about the slow passage of time. "Continental drift happens faster than this whiskey".

Then more exploration of age happens. How long has the brand been on the market. And that's dozens of more ideas about the history of the company.

Then they change the age angle to where is the bourbon made. So they go off on Kentucky for dozens of other ideas. Then they move to how people drink bourbon and what time of day.

And they come up with hundreds of ideas that he couldn't have gotten if he just sat there thinking about whiskey. He was thinking about whiskey sometimes, but really he was thinking inside a new box he had given himself over and over and over again.


Jim Coudal has a great talk at South by Southwest about the creative process. A thing he's grown to realize is that the creative process is matching something that's constant with something that's variable.

He describes a fun game they came up with to get the creative brain working. Booking bands.

"The idea is to mash up the name of a book with the name of a band"

It's just a good example of how people can come up with some really creative ideas with the constants of "band name" and "book title" but still manage to be wildly creative.

Corporate brainstorming sessions

I've been in plenty of corporate brainstorming sessions. And the problem is, the room usually doesn't contain a single person who's studied how to help people get more creative.

Sure we all know we are supposed to write down whatever ideas come up no matter how off the wall they are, and whittle them down later. But that's usually the only idea to help the group get going.

A lesson similar to all the examples above I've learned is to start giving people even random constraints.

You want people to get unstuck? Just open up a dictionary to a random page and pick a random word. And now tell your colleagues that all the ideas for the next 15 minutes have to be related to that word.

Say we're at NASA trying to come up with better food available to astronauts. And the word is zebra. You could go all over the place. Zebras remind me of black and white, stripes, animals, zoo, food at the zoo. They also remind me of referees and umpires and food at baseball and basketball games. Yum. Maybe zebras make you think of temperature or binary possibilities of cooking.

Regardless, the list could go on and on, just because of the mashup of what seems to be two totally non related things.

I was in the car with my wife who works at an insurance company. I thought lets try this trick and see if we come up with any crazy ideas for what this insurance company could do to generate even more business.

We passed by Long John Silvers and I said the constraint is "fast food". So ideas started rolling like well they could sponsor happy meals at McDonalds. They could make little action type figures. If kids love an insurance company their parents have to. Look at Geico and their lizard and it's ringtones.

On and on this could go.

The point is, stop staring out into space hoping you come up with some revolutionary idea just because you think you can start thinking about anything and everything.

Instead, keep giving yourself a new constraint or two to think within. Then do that over and over and over again. You'll be amazed at how many more ideas you can arm yourself with.

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