Think 'Inside-the-box'

While being customer Centric is very important for innovation and product development, market research has its share of critics. Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” He was essentially referring to customers’ lack of imagination to think of innovative products to address their needs. There is some truth in this – studies show that in focus groups, people normally go for innovations that incorporate only small changes from the current version. This does not help since the incremental changes are not enough to change customers’ normal buying habits.

The other approach followed is out-of-the-box thinking which uses brainstorming. Since no idea is a bad idea, this often gives rise to ideas which are too far-fetched and may be beyond the technical capabilities of the organization or not aligned to its brand image. Even if it’s technically possible, the costs of doing so may prove prohibitive.

To help understand this better, let us say a new music band creates a hit song which goes viral. If the band keeps producing songs which are very similar to its earlier chartbuster, people will get bored of this repetitive style very quickly. On the other hand, if the band ventures into new territory by transforming its style or even changing its genre of music, its fans may be left confused and not able to relate to the new style or genre. What it requires is creativity in striking that right balance. But can creativity be learnt or is it some people just have it (and some don’t)!?

Among rock groups, one name that immediately springs to mind when it comes to creativity is ‘The Beatles’. Even after half a century from their formation, the four famous singers are almost immediately recognizable by most people around the world. They remain the best-selling band in history with 600 million records sold worldwide! What made the Beatles continue to churn out songs that were new and fresh yet retained their signature style? (Compare Hey Jude with Yellow Submarine or Love me do!!)

Paul McCartney, one of the 4 Beatles members once said when asked about how they did it over and over again “…John (Lennon) 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.” Hmm, interesting! Such high level of creativity through a template? Agatha Christie, best-selling novelist of all time also did it by using a familiar template. It made her more creative.

Template-based innovation sounds almost paradoxical, doesn’t it? Yet, it has worked for some of the most creative people of all time. It uses patterns and the key is to be able to spot these patterns.

Looking for patterns which can be reapplied to a product, service or process has given rise to what is known as Systematic Inventive Thinking or SIT. It helps channel the idea generation process and guides our thinking in a systematic way. The method grew out of research by the Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller who spent his professional life working to formalize the creative process.

SIT differs from the traditional innovation or problem solving process in a few fundamental ways. For one, it is product-centric instead of being customer-centric. It focuses on what could be called ‘Inside the box thinking’ as opposed to ‘Outside the box thinking’. The notion here is that innovation happens better when we work inside our familiar world using templates. Innovation can be difficult yet easy in hindsight – we often get surprised at a new innovation and ask ourselves “Why didn’t I think of that?” given how easy it seems.

Traditional thinking would take a problem, refine it and then try to find ways of solving the problem. In this method, this logic is turned on its head – we start with an abstract solution and then think of what problems it could solve. The logic here is that sometimes, we are better at searching for benefits for a product configuration rather than products which can solve a particular problem.

Let’s say we are asked the problem “How can we make sure we don’t burn a baby with milk that is too hot?” Now imagine that we were 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? We would immediately recognize that such a bottle would help to make sure we didn’t burn the baby with milk that is too hot.

One example of a template is Subtraction. In subtraction, something has been removed from a product or service so as to create a new function or benefit for that product or service. What could be a pattern in these items: contact lenses, an exercise bicycle and powdered soup? In each of these, a component has been removed from a standard product to create a new product. The contact lens has had the frame of a regular pair of glasses removed. The exercise bicycle has had the rear wheel removed. A package of powdered soup has had the water removed.

There are other powerful templates such as division, multiplication, task unification and attribute dependency within SIT. Empowered with SIT templates, creativity is no longer reserved for the gifted or talented. It’s a skill that can be learned, mastered and applied by anyone. This is critical at a time when organizations have a compelling need to innovate in order to stay in business.

Ref: Finding your innovation sweet spot (HBR)

Inside the Box – A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd & Jacob Goldenberg

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