- People process information by assigning it to categories, or “boxes.”
- Thinking “outside the box” isn’t enough. Breakthroughs emerge from questioning existing boxes and making new ones.
- For example, BIC achieved a breakthrough by moving from one box – “We make disposable pens” – to another – “We make all kinds of disposable products.”
- You’ll either drive change with a “Eureka moment” of discovery or have change happen to you in a “Caramba moment.”
- “Thinking in new boxes” is a five-step process. First, “doubt or challenge your perceptions and existing boxes.”
- “Probe the possible.” Understand your company, your industry and your global context.
- Practice “divergence.” Gather lots of ideas, even outrageous ones.
- During “convergence,” select the most promising ideas.
- “Re-evaluate relentlessly.” Keep re-examining your boxes.
- Scenarios are an application of these five steps that can help you imagine and explore possible futures, and thus become better prepared for whatever may happen.
Understanding Your “Boxes”
How many colors are in a rainbow? Most people would say seven, but physics models reveal that a rainbow’s colors are a continuous spectrum. People group the colors into seven bands because that’s easier to understand than an infinite array. That’s one example of how the human mind copes with complexity – by clustering information into mental categories, or boxes. Such boxes help you make sense of the world, but they also can perpetuate biases and outmoded thinking.
“Thinking in new boxes is about changing the way you think, or, more precisely, increasing your awareness of how we all create and use mental boxes.”
Leaders of creativity workshops often urge participants to “think outside the box.” That sidesteps a major revelation: Given how the mind processes information, to be innovative you need a new box entirely.
Holding on to old boxes stifles innovation. Creating new ones energizes it. Consider the BIC company, which achieved success making and selling inexpensive, disposable ballpoint pens. The company could have gone on for years making more innovative pens – all within its existing box. Then came a breakthrough: BIC shifted its mental box from “We make disposable pens” to “We make all kinds of disposable products.” The company went on to make disposable lighters, razors, surfboards and precharged mobile phones.
“A new box, if you get it right, can help bring people together both within and outside your organization, unifying their outlook around a common theme, idea, or sense of purpose and possibility.”
BIC’s innovation came from a “Eureka moment.” Such revelations occur when a company drives change by creating a new box. If you don’t get ahead of change, you’ll face a “Caramba moment” – when change happens to you. Blockbuster faced a Caramba moment when it had to expand into kiosks to respond to Redbox and had to rent DVDs through the mail to compete with Netflix.
“Surviving success can be just as challenging as succeeding in the first place.”
Thinking in new boxes calls for both “deductive” and “inductive” thinking. Deductive thinking applies logic to a problem with a finite number of answers: “What is an example of a bird?” The answers could include “pigeon, crow” or “sparrow.” Inductive thinking, by contrast, uses creativity to generate unexpected ideas. Examples of birds are finite, but a bird could evoke many things: something with feathers, something that flies, something that stands for freedom. Both types of thinking fuel creativity, but induction offers richer insights.
“You have to be free in order to create, but you must first recognize you are a prisoner in order to break free.”
To recognize your existing boxes and discover new ones, follow this five-step process:
Step 1: “Doubt Everything”
To move your thinking into new, unexpected boxes, recognize the frameworks you use now. You probably think in boxes you don’t even recognize. When American track and field athlete Dick Fosbury tried a new high-jump technique at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, his attempts met with curiosity and even ridicule. His technique didn’t fit inside the sport’s existing boxes. Fosbury’s “back-first” technique, the “Fosbury flop,” earned him a gold medal and is now a standard approach in the high jump.
“No idea is good forever. No matter how brilliant, how resilient, how imaginative, how timely and effective, every box you conceive will benefit from being modified, improved and ultimately replaced.”
Cognitive bias can skew your thinking. Imagine a frozen pond with 100 people skating on it. Imagine the same pond, but with one person skating. Would you be more likely to skate on the first pond or the second? Many people would say the first. They give undue weight to the reassurance they feel seeing others on the pond – forgetting that the weight of additional people makes the ice more fragile. People make the same mistake in the business world. They judge risk incorrectly or avoid risks that might bring rewards.
“You can’t move forward if you’re not continuously re-examining and recalibrating your perceptions.”
Examine the core assumptions that your business applies to its daily activities. Think of things your company has never feared – but which could destroy it within a few years. Now flip the question: What has your company always feared that could evolve into its most important asset?
Step 2: “Probe the Possible”
The idea of the solitary genius hitting upon a stunning innovative breakthrough is a myth. Most of the great Eureka moments in business arrived when leaders understood what was happening, or was about to happen, in their industries. Steve Jobs and his Apple colleagues weren’t the first to develop the mouse, the MP3 player or even the tablet computer. They improved those devices dramatically by understanding the world around them and how it was changing.
“During convergence, begin “to translate ideas into reality rather than simply trying to give birth to more and more new ideas.”
To lay the groundwork for a mental shift to new boxes, investigate your company’s current environment in a range of ways, including these three:
- “Customer insight” – Who are your customers? Why do they choose your products and not your competitors’? What keeps other potential customers from choosing to do business with you?
- “Competitive intelligence” – Think of organizations you might not regard as competitors who may one day lure your customers away. When Amazon was new, only booksellers saw it as a threat. Amazon’s reach into diversified markets beyond books caught traditional retailers off-guard. They had failed to see Amazon as a rival because they thought it was in a different business. Try this exercise: Imagine you’re an information technology company and suddenly your competitor is Hertz, the rental car company. How did this occur, and how do you respond?
- “Megatrends” – Consider trends in the wider world that affect your business – in the realm of technology, for example, or energy or demographic change. Focus on the trends you believe will have a wide-ranging effect and could open an array of “strategic responses” for your company. Assessing the impact of megatrends requires you to practice “predictive thinking” – which forecasts what will happen – and “prospective thinking” – which asks what could happen. This allows you to imagine a range of possible futures and to consider ensuing opportunities and challenges for your organization. For instance, what if, in five years, the government enacts individual quotas on energy use? Now, take the opposite approach: What if, five years from now, energy is abundant? How did that occur, and what does it mean?
Step 3: “Diverge”
In 1992, NASA had a problem: It wanted to land an unmanned spacecraft on Mars gently enough to avoid disturbing the soil with foreign chemicals. The breakthrough came when officials stopped envisioning a “perfect” landing and designed a spacecraft that could “bounce” a few times using air bags to cushion the impact. NASA’s engineers shifted their box from “the spacecraft is fragile” to “the planet is fragile.”
“Deduction uses existing boxes; induction creates new ones.”
Practicing divergence invites you to discover new boxes by asking fundamental questions. As a retailer, Staples might approach divergence by asking, “What does Staples do?” but not by asking, “How can we sell more office supplies?” Try a variety of divergence exercises. Imagine your company no longer exists in 2025 and develop a narrative to show how that happened. Imagine a “forced joint venture” with a company in another industry: What if your company had to develop a partnership with Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, or JetBlue Airways? Or, try to describe your company without using the “five key words” from your industry that come to your mind first. For example, if you run a bank, describe your business without saying “money, bank, checking, savings or financial.”
“As valued as deductive thinking is throughout Western society, induction is the richer form of thinking.”
During divergence, entertain every idea, even outrageous ones. Don’t respond to ideas with “Yes, but.” Instead, say “Yes, and,” which builds on the idea and keeps the creative energy flowing.
Step 4: “Converge”
In convergence, shift your thinking from creative to analytical. Assess your ideas. Decide which to pursue and in what sequence. Some criteria people often find useful include:
- “Alignment” – Does the idea fit with your company’s goals, strategy and values? Does it leverage your organization’s most important competencies?
- “Feasibility” – What’s the cost in time and money? Does it align with your current technology and staff resources? When will it start producing sufficient revenue?
- “Impact” – How will this idea enhance your company’s reputation and its competitive position? How will it affect your industry, your state and the global community? What are the consequences if the idea fails?
Step 5: “Re-Evaluate Relentlessly”
Coming up with innovative ideas isn’t the end of the process. No idea stays on the cutting edge forever. To stay successful – and to avoid a Caramba moment – keep innovating. That entails constantly re-evaluating your boxes and knowing when to replace them.
“During divergence, no idea – as idiotic or inappropriate as it may seem to anyone – should be immediately rejected.”
The Reuters news organization, founded in 1850, brilliantly updated its boxes as technology evolved – while maintaining its “broad box” as an information provider. It first sent messages using homing pigeons, then the telegraph and later the telex machine. It embraced radio in 1923, satellite communication in 1962 and Internet news delivery in the 1990s.
“What would it take for 60% of Americans to set your company’s website as their home page? That is an example of a question that is evocative and specific enough to lead to a useful divergence session.”
Aside from a Caramba moment, how do you know when it’s time to create a new box? Watch for “weak signals” that might be hard to notice given your personal perceptions or biases. Weak signals could reveal a new competitor entering your industry, growing unease among essential people in your company about the arrival of new technologies or subtle changes in your company’s pivotal performance metrics.
Scenarios: Envisioning Multiple Futures
One useful application of the five steps is to create scenarios. Envision possible but unexpected futures. Say you’re an executive with a movie chain. Faced with changing customer habits, you envision a set of scenarios to describe what going to the theater might be like in 2025. One scenario might be called “Fit Family World,” and it could show going to the movies as an activity that includes health and fitness benefits.
“Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple did not invent the mouse, MP3 player, mobile phone or tablet computer. And yet the dramatic improvements they made…changed the world.”
Another scenario might be “Custom Leisure World” – offering every moviegoer a customized sensory experience. Your goal is to extrapolate current trends, combine them in unexpected ways and generate plausible if unlikely futures that then prompt you to “shape new boxes and stress-test current ones.” Build scenarios using these components:
- “Inputs, such as trends” – Think of long-term global trends like the rise in social networking, climate change or the growth of emerging markets such as Brazil and China.
- “Wild cards” – Imagine circumstances that, while unlikely, could have a major impact on a particular trend. These could include a dramatic rise in oil prices that forces public transportation to rely on natural gas or a rise in Asian power that impels nearly all global communication to take place in Mandarin.
- “Variables” – Come up with real-life situations in which the megatrends you’ve identified might play out. If you’re a national news organization, one variable might be “announcing the daily weather in 2025.”
- “Hypotheses” – Brainstorm what could happen in each of the situations you envision. If your variable is announcing the daily weather in 2025, your hypothesis could feature an animated, information-filled globe that springs from an iPad as a hologram.
“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
Permutations of the hypotheses then become scenarios, and the value comes from identifying what each scenario means for your business. To do that, ask yourself this question: What do these scenarios imply for your strategy and for big decisions you and your organization might be facing?
As you create new boxes, bring people of different ages, genders, backgrounds and perspectives to the table. The group can be large or small, but it’s important to “capture the power of multiple minds” to generate the widest variety of ideas. Having sessions away from your usual workplace helps stimulate creativity. Involve your major decision makers – but encourage participants to set aside differences in seniority and respect all the ideas that pour, regardless of the source.
About the Authors
Former general manager of the Brussels Stock Exchange, Luc de Brabandere is a fellow and senior adviser with the Boston Consulting Group, where Alan Iny is the senior global specialist for creativity and scenarios. Both lead workshops on ideation, building creative capabilities and envisioning the future.