Innovative Thinking vs “Thinking Outside the Box”

This article originally appeared on AndresManuelOlivaresMiranda.com on Aug. 18, 2017.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most successful companies in recent years—Google, Tesla, Amazon—have a reputation as innovators. After all, reinventing products or redefining services conveys serious benefits for the company managed to develop them, in terms of both profits as well as prestige. However, innovation is a challenge and doesn’t come with a roadmap, and that means many companies often turn to their own strategies as methods of sparking innovative epiphanies.

One approach to innovation is simply to ask for feedback: Arranging some teams or reaching out to the entire company, perhaps, and asking them to share what they would do differently to improve a particular product or service. While this commitment to transparency and respect for all employees’ perspectives is admirable, it’s not necessarily the most effective tactic when it comes to fostering innovation.

As Ian Altman explains in a recent Forbes article, pursuing this “suggestion box” method of innovation is ineffectual since people typically respond by explaining what they want to see in the new product, leading to a flood of highly personalized answers that may have no utility for the project at hand. That isn’t to say that seeking feedback isn’t valuable or important, but it does indicate that leaders need to ask for feedback in the more constructive ways.

Altman notes that the typical “How can we think outside the box?”-style of questioning often limits teams’ innovative potential because, from a psychological perspective, asking people to think outside the box reinforces the idea that there was some “box” in the first place and thus fortifies their preconceived notions about the object at hand. Thus, “thinking outside the box” confines thinking and stifles innovation rather than encourages it.

Instead, he proposes that leaders ask better, more tailored questions of their teams. Think of the specific variables or forces that shape your particular product or service and use those as your jumping-off point. Beyond “thinking outside the box,” ask questions like “How can we lower our prices for customers?” or “How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors” and use those questions to inspire innovation. With strategies like these, companies and leaders can put innovation within their grasp.

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