All innovation occurs in some kind of box. It’s always framed by some constraint, whether from the organization, the marketplace, or the consumer.
In some cases, those constraints can spark even greater creativity. They can provide focus and a tangible challenge to rally the team. Think about the famous scene in Apollo 13, when an engineer briefed the team trying to save the astronauts: “We’ve got to find a way to make this [square CSM LiOH canister] fit into the hole for this [round LEM canister] using nothing but that [spare parts on board the ship].”
Yet some constraints can preemptively hamper innovative thinking. It all depends on the size of the box.
I once attended a “blue sky ideation” for a 120 year old brand of baking flour. We started out with freeform brainstorming and quickly realized that we were limited in just about every dimension (no new SKUs, no new sizes, no new ingredients, etc.). An idea to package the flour in milk cartons to prevent spills when pouring was vetoed because we couldn’t change the line equipment.
It turned out that the “blue sky ideation” wasn’t “blue sky” at all. We weren’t allowed to step beyond the very small box that currently contained the brand. No wonder they hadn’t had a major innovation since 1979. With those constraints, why bother having an ideation at all?
As Innovation Professor Tim Kastelle wrote. “‘Think outside the box’ usually means ‘make a small jump that will move one edge of the box out just a tiny bit’.”
(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment at 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)