To Innovate, Rethink the Box
The most common and least helpful innovation advice in Corporate America is to think outside the box.
We’ve all heard it a million times, and we have an intuitive grasp of the Why, but little grasp of the How. That’s because the box we’re referring to is the most consequential thing in our professional lives – even though it’s not real. But let’s take a step back…
The problem of innovation
At its simplest, innovation is finding a way to create value, increase value, or decrease cost. That’s really it. But what these actions have in common is that they are changes from the status quo — and therein lies the rub, because change is really hard. And it’s particularly hard in corporations that have already found success in that status quo, due to two forces: the Einstellung effect and path dependency.
The Einstellung effect is the negative effect of previous experience. Despite the possibility that better ways to solve a problem exist, we tend to try to solve it using the methods that have worked for us before. This makes it difficult to see alternate ways of doing things.
Path dependency is similar, but operates on the scale of whole companies — even whole economies. As the name suggests, it is easier in the short term to continue with the current course than to forge or find a new path, even if a better one is known to exist. Or, as Eugene O’Neill put it:
There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again – now.
In other words, today’s success is the enemy of tomorrow’s success.
And that brings us back to the box. The box is just the sum of our values and every decision we’ve made to date. And that’s why we have to think outside the box, because it’s holding us back. It no longer works.
But stepping outside the box only tells us what not to do. We’ve left the box. Now what?
The pattern of innovation
Researchers have shown that if we take a look at all the innovation we’ve seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, only 10% of that innovation was truly original and new. In the other 90%, they took the innovation from one place, and applied it somewhere else.
In other words, most of the time, innovation is creating value, increasing value, or decreasing cost by recombining and reinterpreting the works of others. A great example is the disposable blade razor, introduced in 1903 by King Camp Gillette. This was truly of the 10%.
Gillette sold the razor at a reasonable price, just like his competitors, but introduced a disposable blade, which he sold at high markup. This was convenient for consumers, for an expensive blade was still cheaper than a whole new razor. Once his patents expired, his competitors found an in: they could sell the razor at an artificially low price to capture the market, and make up the revenue in the long-term sales of blades. This is now known as the razors and blades business model, and it’s found in many places in the 90%.
HP didn’t invent the printer, but sold inkjets cheap and made money on the cartridges. Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, but made buckets of money through a store to buy MP3s for use on its iPod. Amazon didn’t invent ebook technology, but sold the Kindle cheap and captured revenue through an ebook store. And on and on and on…
All of these innovations are in the 90%. They invented nothing new. Instead, they found a pattern, and integrated it into their business model.
If 90% of innovation is the application of existing patterns, then it’s not about thinking outside the box, but finding the right box in which to think.
Ok…so how does one do that?
Insert the facilitator
A good innovation facilitator has mastered the patterns of innovation, can rapidly extract the status quo from people, and then use both to find new options to explore.
In other words, a good facilitator helps you find the right box.
She does this by adding structure. A lot of structure. Though it may be counterintuitive, structure and discipline create the freedom needed to be creative — to innovate. She takes the open and unstructured void of being outside the box, and turns it into the clear decision-making process of being in the right box.
The decision to run in a particular direction is often the hardest part of innovation, because we know the stakes are high. We also know that every trail is an irrevocable rejection of every other. They become the road not taken. This creates tension in teams. It’s scary. And it’s necessary.
This means that a good facilitator forces decision-making. Innovation is about moving quickly, testing rapidly, and pivoting as needed. Waiting for the perfect time with perfect information is absolutely anathema to innovation. We must dive in. Now.
Facilitators aren’t experts in your business; they aren’t even experts in your industry. Experts answer how, but how is like the 6th player on an NBA team: he’s pretty damn good, but he’s not a starter. 
The job of a facilitator is to help determine exactly what the thing is, and only then focus on how to get it done. They don’t need to be experts in your business at the outset, because you are. You bring knowledgeable heads into the room, and the facilitator will extract that information, turn it into something useful, and create your critical decision-points.
And only then ask how.
In short, facilitation licenses you to make decisions now, and then gets you to work. For opportunity awaits.
Need some help?
It’s hard to rethink the box when you’re sitting so close to it. If you think a trained, external viewpoint could help unlock your team’s creative and innovative potential, let’s talk.
: Thanks to our friend, Kirk Wayman, for the analogy. I’ve shamelessly stolen it for use here.