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Innovation Happens Inside The Box

Posted on August 9th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


We looked last time about how powerful it can be to work within constraints. Choosing helpful constraints actually helps us to be innovative and get things done, rather than slowing us down and getting in the way (which is the common perception).

When it comes to innovation, there’s another common fallacy I want to look at today.

“Think Outside The Box”

How many times have you been told, or asked someone else, to think outside the box? The phrase seems to be less prevalent than it once was, but I still hear it surprisingly often. Especially when people are talking about innovation, product creation or coming up with new ideas. Thinking outside the box seems to be the way to go.

Except, I don’t really know what it means. I’m not too sure where this mythical box is, what it looks like or what I’m doing in it. I certainly don’t know how to get out of it.

This idea of thinking outside the box points to the notion that innovation happens somewhere different from where we normally are. Innovation happens somewhere other, somewhere separate, somewhere detached from our “normal” thinking.

In my experience, that just isn’t true.

In fact, holding the belief that in order to be innovative we must somehow allow our thinking to go somewhere “other” can be a huge stumbling block. We end up piling pressure on ourselves to think in a “different” way, to leave the things we know and use day to day behind, and to suddenly flick our “creativity switch” on (which by the way, doesn’t exist).

How About We Just Think?

Instead of trying to do something different to find that magical innovative spark just because we’re told that we should, perhaps it would be a good idea to look at some of the great innovators of history and the products and ideas they came up with.

We could look at Edison and the light bulb as one of the greats. If we look into that story we find a coming together of a huge number of patents and known technology and ideas. Edison worked with what he had in front of him. He brought the sum of his knowledge (and that of others) together and came up with an innovative way to apply it.

If we look into the Wright brothers, it’s a similar story. They applied the technology and knowledge of their day in a new way. They didn’t have to retreat into different ways of thinking, they just applied what they had in front of them.

In more recent history, we could say Apple did exactly the same thing with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Again, taking existing ideas, existing technology and existing thinking. But combining them in a new, relevant way.

If all of those innovations (and most others we could look into) come from combining existing and known technology and ideas, why do we hold on to the idea that we need to become detached from our normal thinking if we want to be innovative?

Perhaps it would be more effective to work out what we’re trying to do, the knowledge we need to get us there and the constraints we need to give us focus. Instead of trying to “think outside the box”, perhaps we should be thinking about what we’re going to bring into our box with us.



All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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