Inside the Box

The practice of systematic creativity

The Marker on the Board (Jacob’s Story)

Why the most creative solutions are right under your nose.

The moment I walked into the classroom, I could see that something was different. The students were excited, I could feel the anticipation in the air—and something about their faces made me think that they were planning something mischievous.

I understood their amusement as soon as I tried to erase the whiteboard, which was still covered with diagrams and equations from my previous class. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t erase the remnants of the previous lecture. Someone had apparently switched my markers last time, and I had unknowingly used an indelible marker.

Students were now leaning back in their chairs, openly smiling. As plainly as if spoken out loud, they were waiting for me to prove that my systematic creativity method really worked. If I had to describe the feeling in the classroom, I would have guessed it to be: “The professor isgoing down in flames!”

I decided to accept the challenge. “All right, class,” I said with determination. “The worst thing that can happen is that there is no creative solution to this situation. But if there is one, we should be able to find it with what we have learned in the previous classes.”

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First, I asked them to define a good traditional but noncreative solution to the problem.

“Getting some liquid from the janitor to dissolve the indelible marker?” suggested one student. “Right,” I replied, beginning to feel more confident. Perhaps my students were with me now. “Remember the Closed World concept: let’s confine our searches for a creative solution to resources that are inside this classroom. If we find something, it should be more original, even if not necessarily more useful or efficient than going to the janitor.”

“Why would we go for a solution that was less useful than one we could easily find outside this room?” one student wanted to know.

“In this class, we are looking only for creative solutions,” I said. “Let’s leave the noncreative ones outside the Closed World—in this case, literally outside this room.”

Students started rummaging through their bags, pulling out nail polish remover, perfume bottles, and other alcohol-based liquid (including a can of cold beer). None of them would work as is, but everyone was amazed at what their classmates had brought into the room.

“You see?” I smiled. “There are more resources than you imagine if you search inside, rather than expanding your search outside. For some reason, a search inside yields ideas that we all tend to overlook.” (But what was he thinking bringing beer to my class?)

With growing confidence, I continued, “Now let’s see what else we can find if we look even closer to the Closed World of the problem. Let’s confine the space we are searching even more and include only the things that are at the very core of the problem: the whiteboardwriting world.”

Silence, of the blessed kind. The students were actually thinking.

“We could use an erasable marker to erase the indelible one,” whispered one student. “The erasable marker should have enough solvent to dissolve the markings on the board.” I tested the suggestion by using a regular marker to write over one of the lines on the board. When I then used an eraser to erase the line, it worked. Almost no sign of the indelible mark underneath remained. After the initial shock, the class became wildly enthusiastic. I tried to ignore the noise and began erasing the board.

But writing over every stroke of every letter and number from the last class was a long, slow process. I was beginning to wonder if I should attempt to complete the task, or assume that I had made my point and begin teaching. Just then, another student shouted out, “Hey! What if we can erase the board using the indelible marker itself?”

When I tried this, I found that the indelible marker—the very source of the problem—contained enough solvent to dissolve the marks on the whiteboard. After some trials, the students saw that the indelible marker was just as effective as a regular whiteboard marker. If they wrote over the marks on the board and erased them immediately before the liquid solvent evaporated, the old marks were erased by the solvent in the new marks drawn on top of them. The source of the problem became the solution.

Note that this is not a better solution than the previous one—it’s just as slow—but it is more original, more surprising, and more inside the Closed World. I turned back to the class, gratified but surprised that the exercise had gone so well. Keep in mind that this incident took place years ago, before we’d accumulated empirical evidence (evidence from observation or experimentation) about the richness of the Closed World.

“Okay, people, point made! The Closed World is not endless, but the resources inside it exceed our initial perceptions, and we should make it a habit to look inside, especially if our only options are contained there.”

I triumphantly made my victory speech. “Sometimes traditional solutions do not fit, sometimes they do not exist. What if the janitor’s office were closed? Looking inside, to resources we usually overlook, might be challenging cognitively but effective when a creative solution is required.” With a sigh of relief, I added, “Now, could someone please go to the janitor and bring me something to clean the board?”

 

From Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

 

Copyright 2013 Drew Boyd

Drew Boyd is a professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati.

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