Many of us might assume the phrase “thinking outside the box” is an analogy for exploring ideas outside the confines of convention - for escaping that which fences us in.
In reality, the idiom is even more direct than that, if more conceptual. It refers to a puzzle called the “Nine Dots Puzzle”, in which nine dots are arranged into a square, or box, composed of three rows of three. The challenge is to run a line through every dot in four strokes or fewer, without retracing any lines or lifting the pen from the page. This can only be achieved by drawing lines that extend beyond the limits of the box itself.
The point of the exercise is to reveal how people are constrained by the implicit boundaries of the box - even though those boundaries are not actually a rule of the puzzle. The exercise seems to reveal that the limitations on our problem solving are often self-imposed.
But what is even more interesting is that when the setter draws a larger box around the dots, people succeed in solving the puzzle with much greater frequency.
So what does all this tell us about innovation? It suggests that the term ‘thinking outside the box’ does not mean to be wildly inventive - but only to avoid self-imposed constraints. The answer to the box problem isn’t to behave as if there’s no box at all - but only to look beyond its strict boundaries, and to accept rather wider ones.
Why does the DPP care about this right now? We have just begun work on a new project called Making Innovation Pay - which sets out to identify what defines an innovation that matters. You can’t get very far into a piece of work like this without coming upon the Nine Dots Puzzle. And it also doesn’t take long to conclude that the popular misunderstanding of the phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ perfectly reflects the most basic mistake we tend to make about innovation.
Innovation is often discussed as if it means an act of total originality - as if it is the same thing as invention. The reality however is very different. Many great innovations in media and technology over recent years have drawn on technologies, practices and concepts from outside the industry, or have addressed problems in areas which had not yet received significant attention. These innovators spotted and responded to developing trends outside of their peers’ vision. But their ideas weren’t a bolt from the blue.
Take the iPhone for example - many would regard it as the most important consumer technology innovation of the past two decades. It became the blueprint for the smartphone as we know it, which has in turn consumed the MP3 player, the compact camera and a number of other single-function devices. But the iPhone was itself an evolution of the iPod Touch, which was an evolution of the iPod, and, before that, the portable MP3 player.
Apple’s genius has consistently been to challenge assumptions, and to reinvent through evolution. Its most successful products all directly and unambiguously address consumer lifestyle demands. They see the dots, and where they sit within the wider box, with huge clarity. But they don’t try and trash the dots.
Some of the more significant innovation squibs, on the other hand, have appeared at first to be acts of pure invention. But on closer examination they have actually proved to be the product of over-extended thinking applied to areas which needed no disruption. They have been novel, but no use.
An example of this would be the original Google Glass. At the time it seemed radically original. It quickly spawned the assertion that it would lead us to new sorts of creativity that no one could even imagine - a claim that almost invariably sounds the death knell. In practice, its function was unclear, its form unready, and its price tag unpalatable. It didn’t join the dots, never mind how you looked at them.
The point is that true innovation comes more often from the adaptation of existing practices and the adoption or acknowledgement of the overlooked than from plucking something brand new out of thin air. To think outside the box in the sense of trying to abandon the box altogether is usually to come up with something that doesn’t relate to real life and real needs. But to think outside the box in the sense intended by the puzzle, is to solve a problem by simply surpassing the ordinary and conventional. Being less inventive can mean being more innovative - and almost certainly to make more money.
So understanding what it really means to ‘think outside the box’ can save a lot of time and effort for innovators. But in reality innovators are the minority. It is far more common for companies to apply innovations than to create them; and it is just as important to be able to spot when the Nine Dot Puzzle has been solved by someone else, as to solve it oneself.
Making Innovation Pay will be published in April. If you would like to take part in the research please get in touch.