All We Need Now Is a Box

No, not “innovation” and “creativity”! Anything but that!

For many CEOs, write Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, authors of Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, the very concept of “innovation” conjures up “images of employees wasting hours, even days, sitting in beanbag chairs, tossing Frisbees and regurgitating ideas they had already considered.” And that’s despite the fact that every CEO considers innovation to be crucial to a company’s success.

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But a lot of the problem may have to do with ineffective structures, such as loosely defined “brainstorming sessions,” which in turn lead to lackluster results. “The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn’t follow rules or patterns,” Boyd and Goldenberg wrote in a piece adapted last week for The Wall Street Journal. “We advocate a radically different approach: thinking inside the proverbial box, not outside of it. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them.”

As Peter Drucker might say: Absolutely! “Creativity, if by that is meant undirected, unstructured, untutored, and uncontrolled guessing, is not likely to produce results,” Drucker warned in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. On the contrary, truly innovative companies think very little about creativity—and a lot about problem solving and putting ideas into action.

One of the most important innovators of the 19th century was Thomas Edison, who, Drucker pointed out, took a decidedly structured approach to his work. “He always started out with a clear definition of the product desired,” Drucker wrote of Edison. “He then broke down the process into constituent parts and worked out their relationship and sequence. He set specific controls for key points. He laid down the standards, and so on. To be sure, Edison did not take out the ‘creative spark.’ But he tried, and successfully, to give creativity a solid foundation in system and method.”

In short, thinking inside the box worked. Drucker added, “One indication that he may have been on the right path is the large number of his assistants who became successful inventors in their own right, though clearly devoid of outstanding creativity.”

What’s your view: Is thinking “outside the box” overrated?