What We're Into: "Inside the Box" and Techniques for Innovation

Why do the techniques we use to stimulate creativity end up feeling like dead ends? That's the question Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg explore in their consulting work; in their book Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results; and in the Wall Street Journal article "Think Outside the Box," which summarizes some of their key theories. All business leaders know innovation is essential, they explain, but conventional, open-ended brainstorming takes up time without actually generating good ideas.

Boyd and Goldenberg have found that working within the limitations of the problem at hand ("inside the box") is much more effective than going too broad and throwing out random suggestions. They point out that a common response to revolutionary ideas is "Gee, why didn't I think of that?" Often, the answer to a problem can be found right under our noses. That's why it's valuable to work with the tools and restrictions you already have — you'll be forced to come up with new ways to use them.

Both the book and the article introduce five techniques for using this inside-the-box thinking to be creative:

  • Subtraction: Remove seemingly essential elements
  • Task unification: Bring together unrelated tasks or functions
  • Multiplication: Copy a component and then alter it
  • Division: Separate the components of a product or service and rearrange them
  • Attribute dependency: Make the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment

All of these techniques start as thought experiments or prototypes that show what can happen when they're applied to an existing product, service, or issue. Boyd and Goldenberg offer examples of how the techniques have been used to improve on existing products and invent new ones.

In the Wall Street Journal piece, Boyd and Goldenberg write that creativity is not "reserved for the gifted and talented. It's a skill that can be learned and mastered by anyone, if approached properly." Their techniques offer a systematic and successfully proven approach to creativity in business.