Inside the Box
“It worked!” I told Jacob Goldenberg, my friend and coauthor of this book. “They used the method, and used it well.” Although it was late for us to be on Skype given the seven-hour time difference between Cincinnati and Jerusalem, Jacob was eager to hear how my latest class had gone. Jacob and his colleagues in Israel, Roni Horowitz and Amnon Levav, had developed a new method of creativity and had been teaching it to corporate executives, engineers, marketing professionals, and other business leaders all over the world. Still, this latest class of mine was a true test of whether the method was fail-proof and reliable as we all believed.
Yes it was, I was happy to report. One of the students in particular had achieved the kind of creative breakthrough Jacob and I had hoped for—and which we’d seen happen time and time again with seasoned professionals. I had handed sixteen-year-old Ryan an ordinary flashlight and, after walking him through the required steps of the method, instructed him to invent something new. Ryan’s invention was a simple modification of the flashlight’s on-off switch. He created a switch that would also act as a dimmer, changing the brightness of the light as needed. This may not seem to be a particularly exciting idea to you, and it’s not the most revolutionary idea we’ll introduce in this book. But listen to the circumstances.
Ryan was part of a group of special-needs students at the Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati. These students had various cognitive and motor limitations, including autism and learning disorders. Ryan has Down syndrome. Despite his cognitive limitations, he was able to learn and successfully use the same method that you will learn here, a method in use by leading corporations and inventors around the world.
A METHOD TO INNOVATE
The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn’t follow rules or patterns. That you need to think “outside the box” to be truly original and innovative. That you should start with a problem and then “brainstorm” ideas without restraint until you find a solution. That you should “go wild” making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your products, services, or processes. That straying as far afield as possible will help you come up with a breakthrough idea.
We believe just the opposite. We’ll show you that more innovation—and better and quicker innovation—happens when you work inside your familiar world (yes, inside the box) using what we call templates. We don’t make that claim lightly. Jacob, Roni, Amnon, and their advisors, professors David Mazursky and Sorin Solomon, developed this method of creativity inspired by the work of pioneering researcher Genrich Altshuller. Altshuller discovered that creative solutions have an underlying logic that can be defined and taught to others. His focus on patterns in engineering solutions stimulated Jacob and his partners to ask the same questions about patterns in highly innovative products and services.
By 1999, this team had studied hundreds of successful products to see what made them different from similar products. What they found will surprise you. You’d think that new and innovative products would be quite different from each other. In fact, inventive solutions share certain patterns, patterns that can be formed into templates. These templates regulate our thinking and channel the creative process in a way that makes us more—not less—creative.
We believe innovators from all corners of the world have used templates in their inventions for thousands of years, most of them without
realizing it. Those templates are now encoded like DNA into the products and services you see around you.
Surprisingly, the majority of new, inventive, and successful products result from only five templates: subtraction, division, multiplication, task unification, and attribute dependency. These templates form the basis of the innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). In the twenty years since its inception, the method has been expanded to cover a wide range of innovation-related phenomena in a variety of contexts. By using Systematic Inventive Thinking, companies have produced breakthrough results in many types of situations and in every part of the world. In this book we focus on the basic techniques and principles that are at the method’s core and that make it unique.
You may have been struck by the word systematic in Systematic Inventive Thinking. Most people are. We know it sounds counterintuitive, the notion that creativity can be systematic. Yet it can be. The method also happens to be very effective at making creativity accessible to anyone. And by using the method, you will be consciously harnessing templates mankind has used intuitively for ages to create new ideas.
Does it work? Royal Philips Electronics, a world-leading electronics firm, used the “Subtraction” technique to revolutionize the DVD market. Remember when DVD players looked like the traditional bulky VCR players, with a confusing number of buttons and displays on the front panel? The Philips team used our approach to develop a DVD player controlled by a handheld device. The result: a slimmer, cheaper, easier-looking, and easier-to-use DVD machine. Philips’s solution redefined the DVD market and established a new design standard for today’s DVD players and other home electronics. That was just one of 149 usable ideas Philips generated using SIT on that occasion.
Samsonite, the world’s largest travel bag company, used the “Task Unification” technique to expand into the college backpack market. Backpacks, especially for college students, cause back and neck strain due to the weight of their contents: textbooks, laptop, and so on. Instead of padding the straps like all others, the Samsonite team created a way to use the heavy weight as a comfort advantage. The straps are shaped so that they press softly into the wearer’s shoulders at strategically
located “shiatsu points” to provide a soothing massage sensation. The heavier the contents, the deeper the sensation and the more stress-relieving for the wearer.
Pearson Education, the world’s leading education company, used the “Multiplication” technique to create a new course designed specifically for students who failed pre-algebra or algebra and needed a different approach to studying these subjects. By the way, it’s just a coincidence that the multiplication technique was helpful with the math curriculum; that same technique also led Pearson to invent a new audio planning coach that helps teachers plan their lessons and to create a new web-based approach to customer service.
In this book, we’re going to teach you how to apply our inside-the-box approach to develop any type of product, service, or process. We’ll illustrate each technique with lots of examples, both from clients we’ve worked with and from the world at large.
Consider, for example, Bill Frisell, one of the leading jazz guitarists since the late 1980s. He is known for using an array of electronic effects (delay, distortion, reverb, octave shifters, and volume pedals, to name a few) to create unique sounds from his instrument. One of Frisell’s favorite techniques to devise new sounds is to imagine having only one of the guitar’s six strings available to him. He subtracts the others by restricting himself to playing on one string and forcing himself to make more creative music. Bill Frisell became more creative when he worked inside the box—that is, confined to a guitar but with some key elements subtracted.
In situation after situation, the same five templates keep showing up as keys to innovation. The more you learn about this approach, the more you will start to see the five techniques being applied to solve tough problems and create all sorts of breakthroughs.
The five techniques are:
SUBTRACTION. Innovative products and services often have had something removed, usually something that was previously thought to be essential to the product or service. Discount airlines subtracted the frills. Removing the ear covers from traditional headphones gave us “ear buds”
placed inside one’s ear. Subtracting the polymer from permanent markers created the dry-erase marker. Defying all logic, Apple took out the calling feature of its popular iPhone to create the iTouch and has sold sixty million iTouches since.
DIVISION. Many creative products and services have had a component divided out of them and placed somewhere else in the usage situation, usually in a way that initially seemed unproductive or unworkable. Products in your home that use remote controls deliver more convenience thanks to the “Division” pattern. Exercise dumbbells allow you to regulate the right amount of weight to build muscle mass. Computer printers allow you to separate the ink cartridge for easy replacement.
MULTIPLICATION. With this technique, a component has been copied but changed in some way, usually in a way that initially seemed unnecessary or odd. For instance, children’s bicycles have regular wheels plus two smaller “training wheels” attached to the rear wheel to keep the bicycle steady while the child learns how to ride. “Picture-in-picture” TVs were a big hit with consumers because they allowed people to watch one show while keeping track of what was happening on another channel, such as a major sporting event or news story.
TASK UNIFICATION. With some creative products and services, certain tasks have been brought together and unified within one component of the product or service—usually a component that was previously thought to be unrelated to that task. Odor-Eaters socks keep you warm and have the additional job of deodorizing. Facial moisturizers now have the additional task of providing sunscreen protection. Advertisers have used this technique for years, placing ads on moving objects such as taxis, metro buses, and even school buses.
ATTRIBUTE DEPENDENCY. In many innovative products and services, two or more attributes that previously seemed unrelated now correlate with one another. As one thing changes, something else changes. Today’s automobiles
use this pattern a lot: windshield wipers that change speed as the amount of rain changes, radio volume that adjusts according to the speed of the car, and headlights that dim automatically for oncoming cars, to name a few. Smartphones provide information about restaurants, locations of nearby friends, and shopping preferences depending on your current location. The information is dependent on geolocation. It is hard to imagine life without these innovations, all created with this common technique.
WHY TEMPLATES MATTER
But wait. Doesn’t this go against everything you’ve learned about creativity? Could creativity be as simple as following templates?
In 1914 psychologist Wolfgang Köhler embarked on a series of studies about chimpanzees and their ability to solve problems. He documented the research in his book The Mentality of Apes. In one experiment, he took a newborn chimp and placed her in an isolated cage, before she saw or made contact with other chimps. He named her Nueva.
Three days later, researchers placed a small stick in the cage. Curious, Nueva picked up the stick, scraped the ground, and played with it briefly. She lost interest and dropped the stick.
Ten minutes later, a bowl of fruit was placed outside her cage, just out of Nueva’s reach. She reached out between the bars of the cage as far as she could, but to no avail. She tried and tried, whimpering and uttering cries of despair. Finally, she gave up and threw herself on her back, frustrated and despondent.
Seven minutes later, Nueva suddenly stopped moaning. She sat up and looked at the stick. She then grabbed it and, extending her arm outside the cage, placed the end of the stick directly behind the bowl of fruit. She drew in the bowl just close enough to reach the fruit with her hand. Köhler described her behavior as “unwaveringly purposeful.”
Köhler repeated the test an hour later. On the second trial, Nueva went through the same cycle as before—displaying eagerness to reach the fruit, frustration when she couldn’t, and despair that caused her to give up temporarily—but took much less time to use the stick. On all
subsequent tests, she didn’t get frustrated and didn’t hesitate. She just waited eagerly with her little innovation in hand.
Three-day-old Nueva created a tool using a time-honored creativity template, one of many used by primates—including man—for thousands of years. That template: use objects close by to solve problems. Once she saw the value in this approach, Nueva began using it over and over again.
Patterns play a vital role in our everyday lives. We call them habits, and, as the saying goes, we are indeed creatures of them. Habits simplify our lives by triggering familiar thoughts and actions in response to familiar information and situations. This is the way our brains process the world: by organizing it into recognizable patterns. These habits or patterns get us through the day—getting up, showering, eating breakfast, going to work. Because of them, we don’t have to spend as much effort the next time we encounter that same information or find ourselves in a similar situation.
Mostly, without even thinking about them, we apply patterns to our everyday conventions and routines. But certain patterns lead to unconventional and surprising outcomes. We especially remember those patterns that help us solve problems. Patterns that help us do something different are valuable. We don’t want to forget those, so we identify them and “codify” them into repeatable patterns called templates. You could say that a template is a pattern consciously used over and over to achieve results that are as new and unconventional as those you obtained the first time you used it.
Even chimpanzees like baby Nueva can follow templates once they see the value. She used the stick to retrieve the fruit. Her template became “Use objects close by for new tasks.” In fact, apes are quite good at this particular template; as Nueva did intuitively, they constantly use objects in their environment for unconventional ends. For example, they place sticks inside anthills so that ants crawl onto the stick for easy eating. Dr. Köhler’s research showed that apes not only find indirect, novel solutions but also overcome their habitual tendency to use direct approaches. They “repattern” their thinking. They generalize the pattern so that it becomes usable in a variety of scenarios.
But don’t get the idea that the goal of templates is to simply make everything rote and routine. The most highly creative humans use templates to produce extraordinary results. Once they discover a pattern that is successful, they stick with it. Consider one of the most successful musicians in history,
Paul McCartney, and his songwriting partner in the Beatles, John Lennon. In one of his biographies, Paul confided how he and John wrote music early in their careers: “As usual, for these cowritten things, John often had just the first verse, which was always enough: it was the direction, it was the signpost, and it was the inspiration for the whole song. I hate the word, but it was the template.”
Paul and John did the same as Nueva did with her stick. They discovered successful patterns in music and created a sophisticated set of reusable music-making templates that allowed them to generate one hit song after another. Guinness World Records calls McCartney the “most successful composer and recording artist of all time.” He has recorded gold records, with sales of more than one hundred million albums and one hundred million singles.
McCartney was not alone in using templates for music. The composer Igor Stravinsky used them. Writers and poets use them, only they call them forms—sonnets, for example. Poet Robert Frost, the artists Salvador Dalí and Michelangelo—they all learned that templates boosted their creative output. Mystery author Agatha Christie used them too: a dead body is discovered; a detective examines the crime scene, collects clues, interviews suspects, and only at the very end reveals the killer—the person you least suspected! Once she had a plot, she filled in information and facts from the world around her—places, character names, and so on—all fitted within the same template.
One would think that sixty-six murder-mystery novels using the same template would be dull and lose their appeal. On the contrary, Christie’s template constrained her in a way that made her more creative, not less. She is the best-selling novelist of all time.
None of these achievements was an accident. Templates “limit” us in a way that boosts our creative output. Agatha Christie confined her stories to a familiar sequence. Paul McCartney worked within his self-defined
musical structure. Baby Nueva? She had no choice but to be creative within the confines of a box with steel bars. She was literally “inside the box” when she invented her solution.
Why don’t most other people know about templates? Perhaps because creative people didn’t realize they were using one. Perhaps they kept it a secret, worried others might steal it. Using a template, after all, might seem to lessen one’s creative genius. Either way, those templates exist, and there is nothing to stop others from using them. Imagine using the best and most productive creativity templates through the ages to invent something new!
Officially we call the method Systematic Inventive Thinking. But that’s a mouthful. So we also have a nickname for it. We call it the inside-the-box approach, and it’s a way to create truly innovative ideas anytime using resources close at hand. That’s right: you don’t have to wait for inspiration, wait for the muse to descend, or otherwise depend on some sort of unusual spark of brilliance to create something. By following our method, you can create new and exciting things—or conceive new and exciting ideas—on demand.
THE CLOSED WORLD
Using these techniques correctly relies on two key principles. The first is called the “Closed World” principle. We’ve actually introduced it to you already: the notion that the best and fastest way to innovate is to look at resources close at hand. Think about it: What is the cleverest idea you have encountered? Chances are it was deceptively simple and something you could have thought of yourself.
Roni Horowitz first conceived this principle in his doctoral research. Like Jacob, he was inspired by Altshuller to study inventive solutions to uncover what secrets they might share. That research showed that something fascinating happens when we first hear about a new and innovative idea. We experience a sense of surprise. We say, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Where does that sense of surprise come from? We tend to be most surprised with those ideas that are right under our noses, that are connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. Though the invention is “close” to our world, we didn’t think
of the clever idea first. Why not? It was so close by! Yes it was. It was in a particular Closed World.
You have your own Closed World: the physical space and time immediately surrounding you. Within this space, you have components and elements within your reach. In your Closed World, you have this book, for instance. You may have a cup of coffee. Or your dog, who is lying at your feet. The starting point for using our method is to take careful note of these components because they become the raw material you use when applying the templates to innovate.
This is counterintuitive because, as we noted earlier, most people think that you need to get way outside your current domain to be innovative. Brainstorming and other methods use random stimuli to push you outside the Closed World, when they should be doing just the opposite.
Baby Nueva discovered her innovation right nearby. So did the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright when he created the spectacular home called Fallingwater. He used existing structures, rocks, streams, and elements around the home as part of the building. He visualized all of the environmental components as part of his Closed World. Rather than see these rocks and streams as obstacles, he used a time-honored template to innovate within the confines of that particular Closed World.
FUNCTION FOLLOWS FORM
The second principle requires retraining how your brain thinks about problem solving. Most people assume that the way to innovate is to start with a well-defined problem and then try to think of solutions. In our method, it is just the opposite. We start with an abstract, conceptual solution and then work back to the problem that it solves. Therefore, we have to learn how to reverse the usual way our brain works when innovating.
This principle is called “function follows form” (just the opposite of “form follows function,” which dates back to 1896 and architect Louis Sullivan). Psychologists Ronald A. Finke, Thomas B. Ward, and Steven M. Smith first reported the phenomenon of “function follows
form” in 1992. They recognized that people take one of two directions when thinking creatively: from the problem to the solution or from the solution to the problem.
They discovered that people are actually better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than they are at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem). Imagine being shown a baby’s milk bottle and being told that it changes color as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? Like most people, you would instantly recognize that it would help to make sure you didn’t burn the baby with milk that is too hot. Now imagine that you were asked the opposite question: How can we make sure we don’t burn a baby with milk that is too hot? How long would it take you to come up with a color-changing milk bottle? Without a technique, you might never arrive at such an idea.
However, using one of the techniques (“Attribute Dependency”) virtually forces you to derive and consider such a configuration. From there, you use your knowledge and experience to link the configuration (color-changing milk bottle) back to its benefits.
And 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. Function follows form.
You are predisposed to using this direction of thinking when you start with the solution. Using our method will help you activate “function follows form” and use it systematically.
A MEETING OF THE MINDS: STREET WISDOM COMBINED WITH ACADEMIC RESEARCH
This book is jointly written, but it encompasses two completely different perspectives. One perspective is that of an academic researcher, Jacob Goldenberg. Jacob is a bona fide “lab rat”: a scientist whose career has been dedicated to understanding how the mind engages in innovation. His discoveries were key in forming the foundation of the method. He has published the research in leading scientific journals, and the method has been spreading in the corporate world. But until now it has not been communicated to a more widespread audience.
The other perspective is that of Drew Boyd, a corporate specialist with more than twenty-five years’ hands-on experience leading innovation initiatives. We jokingly call Drew the “street rat,” since he’s applied the inside-the-box approach to real-life business situations in boardrooms and conference rooms all over the globe. Just as Jacob possesses theoretical mastery of the method, Drew has a deep understanding of how it works in everyday practice.
But Drew had to learn it the hard way. Very hard.
Months before meeting Jacob, Drew met an “innovation consultant” who claimed to have unique tools and methods that would create amazing new products. It sounded too good to be true. So he decided to investigate. Was it true? Were these methods effective?
Drew visited the offices of the innovation consultant to find out firsthand. What he saw amazed him. The offices were futuristic and nontraditional. The employees were very noncorporate, all wearing designer denim and Skechers. They tossed Frisbees. Bicycles were hanging from the ceiling. Clearly, this was no ordinary corporate office, and this was no ordinary company. The place announced that these people must be experts in creativity. They claimed to have a detailed innovation process with a host of clever and dynamic tools and methods to support it. The methods’ names were so clever the consultant had trademarked them. Drew was impressed. This had to be good if the firm had felt it necessary to protect its intellectual property.
Drew convinced the upper ranks of his employer, Johnson & Johnson, to try it out. J&J approved the project, spending well over $1 million and engaging hundreds of employees worldwide using this “surefire” methodology.
Sadly, months of work produced only five meager ideas. They were presented to the management board in fifteen minutes and tossed into the trash immediately. The project was an abysmal failure.
Drew promised himself that he would never become so enamored of a so-called innovation method again. But several months after this painful experience, Drew read a book review in the Wall Street Journal about a young marketing professor named Jacob Goldenberg. The review said, “Innovation can be thought of as a series of patterns or templates.”
Drew remembers thinking as he read those words, “Could that be true? If it is true, it would be amazing.” His painful memory of the recent innovation experiment suddenly kicked into high gear. “Never let this happen again” were the words he had been repeating to himself since his last innovation methodology disaster. He decided to examine this potential method of innovation, but with a great deal more caution than last time.
But after learning about templates, Drew was convinced that this method was truly special. He was determined to try it. He partnered with one of his J&J colleagues to test the method on a new anesthesia device prototype. You will read about that experiment in chapter 2.
Drew, the so-called street rat, and Jacob, the lab rat, finally met face-to-face several years later. That meeting was the beginning of a long relationship in which what we learned in the field inspired new lab experiments, and vice versa. For nine years, Drew was a guest speaker in Jacob’s classes at Columbia Business School, where Jacob’s students contributed to the practical application of Jacob’s ideas.
In this book, we want to raise the curtain and reveal a fascinating world that hides right in front of you—inside the proverbial box. We should warn you: the book takes a different attitude toward creativity from the conventional view. We don’t see a creative act as an extraordinary event. We don’t believe it is a gift that you either have or don’t have from birth. Rather, we believe creativity is a skill that can be learned and mastered by anyone. In that way, creativity is not that different from other skills people acquire in business or in life. As with other skills, the more you practice it, the better you’ll be.
Systematic Inventive Thinking combines the wisdom of the street with scientifically validated knowledge. In this book, we offer you the culmination of our expertise in both domains. By merging these two views, we give you a practical guide to begin innovating in your everyday life. You no longer need to wait for a crisis to consider creative solutions. You can be more innovative on an ongoing basis by learning and applying SIT.
To inspire you to try using the method yourself, we provide plenty of examples where these techniques have been used across a wide range
of industries, products, services, and activities. Later in the book, you will meet some of our colleagues—researchers and practitioners—who helped shape and perfect the method. We present real-life cases from the experience of the team at Systematic Inventive Thinking, a consulting and training company. The team teaches the method to companies around the world to make creativity and innovation part of their cultures. We will introduce you to some SIT facilitators, who graciously shared their stories here.
We now invite you to join the growing number of people around the world who are discovering a systematic way to reapply what mankind does instinctively to create remarkable innovations. First, we will explore the Closed World in more detail so that you are convinced of its creative power and know how to recognize it to fuel your creative endeavors. Then, you will learn each of the five techniques through the eyes of inventors, companies, and even children. You’ll learn a step-by-step way to apply each technique and how to avoid common pitfalls as we impart lessons we have learned in hundreds of training workshops.
We’ll then turn your attention to one of the most vexing scenarios we face when trying to innovate: the dreaded “contradiction.” Contradictions occur when you must reconcile two different factors that directly oppose each other. If you fix one factor, it tends to make the other factor worse—and unacceptable. Contradictions often block our creative output, but we’ll show you a way to think differently about them so you can unblock a way forward.
Our goal for this book is to make the inside-the-box approach accessible to anybody in any field and in any part of life, personal or professional. Together we hope to show you how to work inside the box to use your brain in a different way, and produce innovations that you never would have imagined otherwise.
And here’s the almost magical thing about inside-the-box thinking: the more you learn about the method, the more you will start to see how it can be applied to solve tough problems and create all sorts of breakthroughs in the world around you. You’ll find your eyes open to a whole new world of innovation.