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Thinking Inside the Box: 5 Ways to Generate Breakthrough Ideas

By:  Drew Boyd Dec 2, 2013
5 innovation techniques

Remember the Sony Walkman? While it may seem quaint now, the Walkman was a revolutionary innovation in 1980—one with many skeptics. Even Sony’s chairman at the time, Akio Morita, was surprised by the market’s enthusiasm. With no recording function, the Walkman defied the idea of a “tape recorder.”

The Walkman demonstrates an innovation technique called Subtraction—one of five simple techniques anyone can use to produce new ideas. These methods trump brainstorming in generating more innovations in less time.

The traditional view of creativity requires thinking “outside the box.” Starting with the problem and then brainstorming without restraint. Stretching far afield to find that breakthrough idea.

Headed by one of the most prolific researchers in marketing and my co-author, Jacob Goldenberg, our study of the most successful innovations proves just the opposite. Published in the elite journal, Creativity and Innovation Management, the study finds that, more innovation—and better and quicker innovation—comes when you: work inside your familiar world; generate solutions independent of any specific problem; and use five simple techniques to generate solutions.

These five techniques are the heart of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) and are based on patterns used for centuries to create new solutions. With SIT, you can extract those patterns and reapply them to anything:

  1. Subtraction: Innovative products and services often have something removed, usually something previously thought to be essential. Subtracting the recording function made the Walkman a breakthrough.
  2. Task Unification: This technique brings tasks together, unifying them within one component of an innovation, usually a component that was previously thought to be unrelated to that task. Straps on backpacks are shaped so that they press softly into the wearer’s shoulders at strategically located “shiatsu points” to provide a soothing massage sensation.
  3. Multiplication: Innovative products and services often contain a component that’s been copied but changed in a way that might seem unnecessary or redundant. In cameras, repeatedly firing the flash reduces “red-eye.”
  4. Division: Some products and services emerge with a component divided out and placed in a new location or appearing at a different time. Dividing out the function of an oven and placing it elsewhere in the kitchen creates a warming drawer.
  5. Attribute Dependency: Two unrelated product attributes can be correlated with each other. As one attribute changes, another changes. Transition sunglasses darken as outside light gets brighter.

Use of these patterns relies on two key ideas. First, you must re-frame how you generate ideas. People think the way to innovate is to start with a well-defined problem and then think of solutions. Our method reverses that belief. We start with a conceptual solution and then work back to the problem it solves.

The second key idea is called “The Closed World.” We tend to be most surprised with ideas “right under our noses,” and that are deceptively simple. While people think you need to go outside your current domain to innovate, the opposite is true. The most surprising ideas (“Gee, I never would have thought of that!”) are right nearby.

We have a nickname for “The Closed World”…we call it “Inside the Box.”


About the Author

Drew Boyd

Drew Boyd is a 30-year industry veteran. He spent 17 years at Johnson & Johnson in marketing, mergers and acquisitions, and international development. Today, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media. He is the executive director of the Master of Science in Marketing Program and assistant professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. Drew’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Industry Week, Psychology Today and Strategy+Business. Visit his blog, Inside the Box Innovation.

Drew is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey.