The phrase “outside the box” has so burrowed itself into the American business lexicon in the past decade that grandparents started using it during games of Mahjong and while shopping for toys for their progeny’s progeny. This is a sure sign that something has run its course of usefulness, but was thinking “outside the box” ever useful?
If you want to come up with the most creative solution for your problem, then the answer is no. Don’t set foot outside the box.
Jacob Goldenberg, marketing professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at Columbia University, devoted a whole book to the converse—“inside-the-box” thinking—along with co-author and University of Cincinnati professor Drew Boyd. Goldenberg was kind enough to speak on Nov. 18 at a joint event of the Wharton SEI Research Center and Knowledge@Wharton.
On their website for Inside the Box, Goldenberg and Boyd define the innovation thinking this way:
“For thousands of years, innovators have used five simple patterns in their inventions, usually without knowing it. These patterns are now embedded into the products and services you see around you today. Think of them as the DNA of a product or service. This book is about a method of creativity that allows you to harness those patterns and apply them to anything that you want to innovate.”
Speaking at Wharton, Goldenberg boiled down inside-the-box thinking to its essence: using what’s at hand to solve a problem. Finite resources are the key to creativity.
“Constraints, they set your mind free,” he said.
Goldenberg cited the historical example of the ancient battle between the Indians and the Mongolians. The Indian army was massive. At its vanguard were war elephants, aligned shoulder to shoulder and prepared to trample the smaller, elephant-less Mongols. Instead of retreating or getting stomped, the Mongolian fighters used what was on hand. They set their camels on fire and pointed them in the direction of the elephants. The elephants panicked, turned and stampeded over their own army. Winner: the Mongols.
Another example is the Fosbury Flop, the back-first technique that revolutionized post-war, international high jumping and earned American high-jumper Dick Fosbury an Olympic gold medal. But after interviewing Fosbury, Goldenberg learned that the athlete always believed he was merely taking an existing jump technique, the scissor, and adjusting it to cover up for his own deficiency: a lack of athleticism.
Outside-the-box thinking, on the other hand, requires us to throw new resources at a problem.
When is that necessary? Never, said Goldenberg—or at least only at times when you don’t want a creative idea.
So, has inside-the-box thinking been debunked?
“In real life, there are no boxes,” Goldenberg said.
Au contraire, professor. How else do online retailers mail your books to paying customers?