Three examples why creativity is...inside, not outside, the box.


Is it time to retire the hackneyed phrase - "think outside the box?" I think so and here are three reasons why.

1. As the story is told, Dr. Suess, Theodor Geisel, was disappointed with the books written to help children to read. He decided to write a reading primer using only the words a pre-kindergartener would know. (around 300 words) The result was - "The Cat in the Hat!" Later he was challenged to use even fewer words and "Green Eggs and Ham" was created.

That burst of creativity was a solution to a business problem - not some eureka moment of inspiration. Not thinking outside the box, he was thinking very much inside of it. He was not just pulling characters out of thin air, he had a clear objective and the tools required to be creative. He also felt childrens primers should be more visual - hence the incredible visuals of Dr. Suess. How new and useful was his approach. A generation of school children learned more from them than from "Dick and Jane."

2. Another amazing example was the Apollo 13. Everyone knows the story. In one of the great creative acts of modern time engineers had to create a way to manufacture an oxygen scrubber to keep the astronauts alive using ONLY parts on board the spacecraft. Talk about thinking inside the box. They had an important objective and the tools required to be creative. They figured it out and got the men home safely.

3. In the late 1990s Toshiba developed a mini disk drive that initially had no practical uses. At the same time Apple was forming it's digital strategy. It's forward thinking CEO saw the mini drive and realized it was an answer to a business problem. His designers were given the objective to put the mini drive "inside the box" to create the first iPod. A use of the drive and a solution to a problem for many music lovers.

Often creativity doesn't come from eureka "outside the box" moments, but rather from thinking inside the box like the examples above. Yet in business for years we have been exhorted to "think outside the box." That's hard to do. What is the box? Is the box tall or short, deep or shallow? We're not told, but simply to "think outside of it." We have to know what the box is to begin. We need a clear objective and proper tools. Then we can unleash our creativity to solve the problem.

In the book "Talent is Overrated," author Geoff Colvin makes the point with a story about Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. When giving talks Zander will illustrate this point by "having the audience sing "Happy Birthday" to one of the attendees. Then he says, "Well, now that was very good. But you know what, I think you can do better. Now please sing it again, but this time--better. Go! Complete silence...After a few seconds Zander points out what has just happened. "When everyone understood what to do, they did it easily, together, and without being led. But when they didn't understand -- when simply told to sing it better -- they became paralyzed.""

Creativity comes from looking deeper into what we are already doing. It starts with a clear objective and the tools to solve the problem. Or as Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."

Want us to be truly creative? Then give us a clear objective and understanding of the business problem then turn us loose. We will find the answer, not outside, but more often "inside the box."

Have you seen the same? Have a good inside the box story? Please share it.

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