The traditional view of creativity is that you need to think “outside the box” to be truly original and innovative. Start with the problem and then brainstorm without restraint. Go wild making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your product, service, or process. Stretch as far afield as possible and you’ll come up with a breakthrough idea.

Our comprehensive study of the most successful innovations, and our practice with some of the most successful companies in the world, proves just the opposite. More innovation—and better and quicker innovation—happens when you (1) work inside your familiar world, (2) generate solutions independent of any specific problem, and (3) use just five simple techniques to generate those solutions—subtraction, unification, multiplication, dependency, and division.

These techniques form the basis of the innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). In the twenty years since its inception, the method has been expanded to cover a wide range of innovation-related phenomena in a variety of contexts. The techniques are based on patterns used by mankind for thousands of years to create new solutions. These patterns are embedded into the products and services you see around you almost like the DNA of a product or service. SIT allows you to extract those patterns and reapply to other things.

The five techniques are:

  • Subtraction: Innovative products and services tend to have had something removed, usually something that was previously thought to be essential to use the product or service. The original Sony Walkman had the recording function subtracted, defying all logic to the idea of a “recorder.” Even Sony’s chairman and inventor of the Walkman, Akio Morita, was surprised by the market's enthusiastic response.
  • Task Unification: Innovative products and services tend to have had certain tasks brought together and “unified” within one component of the product or service, usually a component that was previously thought to be unrelated to that task. Crowdsourcing, for example, leverages large groups of people by tasking them to generate insights or tasks, sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Multiplication: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component copied but changed in some way, usually in a way that initially seemed unnecessary or redundant. Many innovations in cameras, including the basis of photography itself, are based on copying a component and then changing it. For example, a double flash when snapping a photo reduces the likelihood of “red-eye."
  • Division: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component divided out of the product or service and placed back somewhere into the usage situation, usually in a way that initially seemed unproductive or unworkable. Dividing out the function of a refrigerator drawer and placing it somewhere else in the kitchen creates a cooling drawer.
  • Attribute Dependency: Innovative products and services tend to have had two attributes correlated with each other, usually attributes that previously seemed unrelated. As one attribute changes, another changes. Transition sunglasses, for example, get darker as the outside light gets brighter.

Using these patterns correctly relies on two key ideas. The first idea is that you have to re-train the way your brain thinks about problem solving. Most people think the way to innovate is by starting with a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions. In our method, it is just the opposite. We start with an abstract, conceptual solution and then work back to the problem that it solves. Therefore, we have to learn how to reverse the usual way our brain works in innovation.

This process is called “Function Follows Form,” first reported in 1992 by psychologist Ronald Finke. He recognized that there are two directions of thinking: from the problem-to-the-solution and from the solution-to-the-problem. Finke discovered people are actually better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem).

The second key idea to using patterns is the starting point. It is an idea called The Closed World. We tend to be most surprised with those ideas “right under noses,” that are connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. This is counterintuitive because most people think you need to get way outside their current domain to be innovative. Methods like brainstorming and SCAMPER use random stimulus to push you “outside the box” for new and inventive ideas. Just 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.

Copyright 2013 Drew Boyd

About the Author

Drew Boyd, Ph.D.

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

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