Thinking outside the box hinders innovation


I had a client the other day asking about creativity training.  

"Why?" I asked - one of my favourite questions.

"Surely innovation is all about blue sky thinking - thinking outside the box?"  she suggested. 

"Is it?" I countered.

By chance we were sitting in the gardens of the London Business School, which provided an excellent context to explore this further.  Let us get creative I thought, and see where it gets us.
"Think of as many creative ways as you can to get around this garden" I prompted. Over time, this elicited an increasingly improbable list of transport options. 

Fine, I thought.  Now let us put this into context.  I pointed to a bench on the far side of the garden.  There was a gravel path leading to it, but it went a very long way around.  A straight line would have taken us through a shrubbery full of attractive, but thorny roses next to which was a shoulder high hedge being trimmed by some gardeners up a tall step ladder.  We rapidly eliminated the less likely options, pogo stick and jet pack were the first to go and focused on two broad options - the long but easy path or more directly, but with intervening obstacles.  The emerging favourites from the list were skate boarding around the path or pole vaulting over the hedge - I didn't ask where the equipment was coming from, but did volunteer that I hated it when transport planners made us poor pedestrians walk further than we wanted with annoying fences.  She didn't bite, but eventually asked what I would do.
I told her that I would borrow the gardener's step ladder and go over the hedge.  

I could see her grappling with why this could not possibly be the answer before frowning and asking rhetorically why she had not thought of that.
"too obvious? not creative enough? or simply the wrong context?"  She nodded.  She saw the step ladder as a maintenance tool; not as a means of getting from a to b.

Creativity is a dangerous road for innovation.  It leads us to over-think (too far outside the box) and lose sight of practical options.  Much better to think hard about your outcome, dismiss any constraints imposed purely by convention and then select the best way forward.  Often the most practical answer is to borrow a solution from a different context - at least it is likely to work.

Banner image © Mark Neild 2013  Dolphin in Bay of islands New Zealand taken shortly before we went swimming with them.