Is it time to think inside the box? Counterintuitive methods can generate fresh ideas and yield results

When is the last time you tapped into your inner child to come up with a new idea?
Everyone knows that success in the modern world demands innovation and creativity. But generating innovative and creative ideas quickly and consistently can be difficult. Luckily, there are some sound alternatives to the traditional brainstorming session that could well come in handy next time you run into a creative block, or need to come up with a fresh idea.


We are always told to think outside the box. But sometimes, boxes are exactly what we need. “By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative, and certainly more productive,” say marketing experts Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg. In their book Inside the Box, they propose a counterintuitive strategy to do this. Rather than establishing a well-defined problem and coming up with a solution, they suggest exactly the opposite: “take an abstract, conceptual solution, and find a problem that it can solve”.
They give the example of Captcha, the software that asks you to type two words written in distorted script inside a box before entering a website. While nobody likes clunky authentication techniques, it dawned on the system’s inventors that Captcha could be used for something very productive. By feeding existing users words that computer scanners can’t decipher on their own, Captcha translates reams of printed content into digital form, such as the archives of The New York Times and Google Books.


The design world may not be the first place a business leaders would go for a lesson — except for when it comes to thinking more innovatively. First, designers have a great deal of customer empathy. They focus on getting to know customers, observing them at home, in the workplace or on the go — instead of merely asking them what they want, or conducting traditional market research. Second, they take interesting ideas and make prototypes to gauge client reaction — known in the industry as “building to think”.
It was this way that Nike created one of their flagship products, the Flyknit Racer trainer. When the company asked athletes to describe their most comfortable shoe experience, they came back describing a sock. So Nike engineers used a computer controlled “knitting” technology. The process took more than 190 different prototypes, but the team managed to create a woven trainer that suited clients’ exact needs.


People have often seen children’s thinking as illogical and lacking. But psychologists have long known this is not the case.
Several studies have demonstrated that the way they observe, explore and learn is, in many ways, more effective than the adult alternative.
While focus and planning will get you to your goal more quickly, they can also tie you in to preconceived ideas. Children, on the other hand, will readily ask all kinds of questions – and they like to have fun. They don’t carry the preconceptions and inhibitions that can stop adults from seeing things in a different light.
Researchers at North Dakota State University illustrated this. They asked two sets of college students what they would do with a day off – but one group were first told to think like seven year-olds. The experiment was run with hundreds of students, and the results were consistent: the groups that were told to think like a child regularly came up with more creative and fulfilling answers.
Yet while a more playful approach can go a long way, the trick is to always get the right balance. As behavioural psychologist Alison Gopnik wrote in The New York Times: “we need both blue-sky speculation and hard-nosed planning”.

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