From the ideas from strange places department:
This past weekend we changed spaces at the Bloomington branch and it got me to thinking about the rather old saw, ‘thinking outside the box.’
Thinking outside the box is not something that works well when you are trying to move. Turns out knickknacks and computer cables travel better constrained in cardboard.
The concept of ‘thinking outside the box’ is often illustrated using an example where you have to connect nine dots using only straight lines:
‘Thinking outside the box’ has gone from sage advice to cliché to weapon and here is where it runs headlong into the Uncertainty Paradox.
If all things are uncertain, can you really get anywhere without a box?
First let’s deal with the pesky nine dots. This is actually a test of ‘assumed rules.’ Self limitation based on rules that do not exist can limit your response to a problem. It has an innate ability to make the participant feel foolish since the answer is rather simple when you ignore the implied boundaries rule. (Lesson absorbed, don’t assume, thank you very much, may we drink now?) However, there are still rules that are implied and enforced. Paper, pencil, the current time-space continuum.
Less obvious. Blurs the lesson. May create a black hole. (Disclosure: The above solution is designed as an attempt at humor although may be scientifically possible using string theory. Everything else seems to be. Also, who knew you could buy a Dr. Who Sonic Screwdriver? I guess I should have known, but really, this could be big.)
The simplicity of the example leads to confusion in how the term ‘thinking outside the box’ is used.
The unfortunate take away: I SHOULD NOT BE BOUND BY RULES
For example, when an inventory controller mentions that the warehouse cannot deal with live ponies the agitated leader screams, “Think Outside The Box!”
The true lesson: YOU NEED TO KNOW THE RULES, (even if you plan to break them).
I have found creativity to be at its most powerful when there is an obstacle present. Something to overcome. A boundary to cross.
That’s why artists are often at the cutting edge of technology and social mores. Limitations to visions must be overcome. Whether a caveman trying to capture life on a wall or director trying to depict dinosaurs on a screen, the desire to create overcomes barriers. (The division between painter, inventor, chemist and so on is rather recent. Often painters were at the vanguard of chemical compound development that would last longer, shine brighter, work better. There’s been a similar path in the push for better digital tools. “Make it do this,” is powerful mojo to an inventor.)
If you command the rudder, you better have some idea of where you are going.
How does this effect behavior?
- Unlimited Choice vs A Choice Few. Ever sit down with the remote and start flipping on a system with 200 or 300 channels? I find the time wasted searching makes me feel what I settle on has less value (There is so much trash on TV, how could this be different?). Compare that to deciding at the beginning of the week on a show you want to catch, programing the DVR or scheduling an evening around the event… Seems more special and you’re less likely to forget the popcorn. There is a limit to how many ideas management can manage.
- Unlimited Time vs Time Constraints. Hallmark was an interesting place. Seasonal product always shipped within a very narrow window of time. (Kind of has to, not like Valentines Day is going to wait now is it.) Everyday product (things for birthdays or thank yous) tended to slip because the deadlines felt made-up. This created some interesting differences in decision making and also tended to put seasonal items at the forefront of shortening lead times and development cycles. If one must finish, one will manage the trade-offs necessary to meet a schedule.
- Unlimited Customization vs Clear Upgrade. I picked up a really cool stereo microphone that can hook directly through USB as well as a whole host of other features. The instruction book is 60 pages long give or take. Took me an hour to figure out how to hook it up to my computer. I feel like my dad did when the VCR light kept blinking 12:00. So much nicer to start with something simple that works and then move forward when I’m ready. Limiting the user experience can improve the user experience.
Janice Cartier, a wonderful creative spirit and New Orleans expat, got me thinking down these lines with a post on her Ziploc studio. A concept where she picks a few artsy tools that fit into a Ziploc bag and heads off to create. Limiting concerns about what to work with leads to limitless creations with the materials at hand.
Innovation in a company can be driven that way as well.
So how can Cardboard Creativity help navigate the Uncertainty Paradox?
Creating boundaries and limits is not the same thing as limited thinking. By establishing the constraints within which you will be working you help direct results towards implementable rather than the blue sky. I think this may be one critical reason why so many big business ideas come out of garages, shacks and dorm rooms. The constraints are obvious and looming, the desire to overcome immediate and pressing. Cardboard Creativity is all about ‘making do, while making great.’ Overcoming limitations and breaking down template thinking by focusing on the core of an idea rather than the fuzzy periphery.
So box your innovative initiatives. Cardboard is great to get things moving, but if you need to break out a wall it is only cardboard afterall.
- Customer Comprehension – How far down the path of customer comprehension are we prepared to go? Should we pull in small steps or giant leaps? What kind of beta cycle can we use? Will a customer accept this kind of product from us? The harder an innovation is to understand, the harder it will be to accept.
- People and Tech – Who do we have who can do this? What are they not doing if they do? Do we have any experience in this technology? If you don’t control technology or people that can make something happen, it may be that you’ve come up with a great idea for some other company.
- Time and Money – Deadlines, Budgets, Pricing Model, Kill Dates. The farther away in time and money a project is from real world customer use the more likely it will swerve off the tracks. Is this idea really within your company’s resource capability? What trade offs are there in strategy, time and costs. (Nobody could make an electric car until Tesla decided to make a really expensive electric car. Turns out it wasn’t the technology constraint, it was the pricing constraint. These have to balance out in a way that leads to a decent size market of course). Resources have to be allocated.
- Sustainability – Does this move us in a strategically sound direction? Must this fit an existing distribution scheme or is it new. What are the limits to SKU, salesperson time, channel attention? Can we manage this through long term development schemes or is it a fad product? Where will this lead to conflict with competitors, when and how? How does this fit long term competitive advantage? All innovation is long haul, if there is no commitment it is a waist of time.
- Integrative Pull – What builds demand for the idea: Integration into existing processes? Connection to cloud computing platforms? Fuel pricing? Political trade winds? Whims of teenage girls and boys? What framework needs to exist for the product to succeed? An innovation that fits into a usage stream smoothly has built in demand pull.
The point is, sooner or later in in every innovation cycle you need to make decisions and limit activity to a focused strategic direction. The more uncertain predictions of the future appear the more necessary it is for leaders to decide what they want the future to be.
You may have noticed my innovation box has just five walls. Best to leave the top off, see what’s inside and, on occasion, leave room for some real out of the box thinking.
The Uncertainty Paradox Three business bloggers search for leadership, strategy and customer relationship insights and certainties in a world full of escalating uncertainties.
- Bill Welter’s Adaptive Strategies blog and his discussion of “Uncertainty and Reasoned Risk”.
- Kay Plantes Business Model Innovations blog and her discussion of “Use Real Problems To Drive Business Model Innovations”
- Fred Schlegel (You’re already here!)
Join the continuing conversation at each of our blogs as we explore the implications of the uncertainty paradox.