Do we need all these “box” metaphors for the creative process?

View of Infanta
View of Infanta (Photo credit: Salem Elizabeth)

When we used to visit my grandparents in Witsands, Western Cape, during the September holidays my grandmother Thomasina would take out a carving knife on Sunday mornings and go down to the chicken run. In those days Witsands was a small traditional fishing village on the Breede River. The chicken run had a huge open space in front of it that looked across to an old “BP” double-decker bus that someone had converted into a holiday home. Anyway, my grandmother would select a chicken from the chicken “hok”, tuck it under her arm and cut its head off. She would place the wildly fluttering bird on the ground and it would run with its head off, blood spurting through its neck around the open piece of gravel yard until it keeled over and died. My grandmother had beautiful blue eyes and when she was in this mischievous mood to scare us “city boys” she would chuckle loudly at our horror of seeing the whole gruesome episode.

I have very fond memories of my grandmother Thomasina but not such positive thoughts when it comes to the creative experts and consultants who peddle their magic snake oil about creativity and innovation. They stuff your head with such nonsense that you feel like chopping your head off and rather running wild to your death like that chicken who’d eventually make it into the Sunday pot roast.

You know what I mean, all that constant babble about thinking outside the box. Management consultants latched onto this concept after they found research done by JP Guildford, a psychologist, in the early 1970s who conducted a study of creativity. He challenged people to connect all nine dots (arranged in a square) using just four straight lines without lifting their pens from the page. From then on the phrase “thinking outside the box” ignited a firestorm in management consulting, psychology, engineering, creative arts, marketing, sales and personal development. Just because you can solve this puzzle doesn’t mean that you will be able to use it to come up with new ideas, concepts and insights.

In the past few years there has been a small amount of interest in so-called “thinking inside the box”. Articles have been written on it in serious business magazines and a book delves into the topic. Basically, what thinking inside the box means is that you create or come up with ideas within constraints, which more closely resembles the constraints or confines that we are presented with in everyday reality. Some people found that wild unstructured, unbounded brainstorming sessions don’t always produce practical ideas.

Now, can you believe it, the creative gurus and consultants believe that by asking questions that create constraints to your problem you are creating “new boxes” to think inside? The questions might go something like this: For an open brainstorming session you may ask, “What new product or service can we come up with to better satisfy our customers?” But if you want to create a “new box”, you may ask a question such as, “What is the biggest problem or difficulty that people have with the products or services that they are buying and wish that they could have something that better solves their problem?”

There’s nothing wrong with this type of incremental innovation but whether it leads to real “breakthroughs” is debatable. The problem with concepts like this is that they are not based on scientific research but really on empirical or sometimes even anecdotal experience. What a lot of these consultants get trapped in is thinking that innovation is something that can be reduced to a formula, turned into a formal structured process or be simplified into fixed rules. Nor can they just copy or imitate the methods of another company and expect fixed results.

They may not like this but what about all the people out there who come up with “brilliant” ideas using none of this “thinking outside the box” or “thinking inside the box” thinking to come up with ideas that become real winners in the marketplace? Just think about the GoPro camera, swimwear for women that stays on their bodies while surfing, or the seed-on-a-reel (invented by a young South African) new products.

Use whatever method you think will help you to generate new ideas or that may have worked for you in the past. Observation, questions, listening, visiting trade shows and shopping centres and talking to real-life customers can be just as effective as any pie-in-the-sky theories about creativity. Real people, sometimes three or four times removed from the “talking heads” in books, magazine articles, podcasts and YouTube videos, will show you that real simple approaches are just as effective or even more so.

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