BOOKS: A new take on innovation

Forget blue-sky thinking, say the authors. A systematic approach to generating good ideas has a better chance of success. Reviewer Charlie Dawson likes what they have to say.

by Charlie Dawson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

BOOK: Inside the Box: Why the best business solutions are right in front of you, by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg.

In my experience, even discussing innovation is tough, never mind tackling it for real and succeeding. Inside the Box is a 'how to' manual for innovation. It aims to help managers in a practical way, demystifying the process of getting groups of otherwise ordinary people to have extraordinary ideas.

It sets up a refreshingly counter-intuitive premise - that great ideas can come from systematic approaches more effectively than from rare genius, and that limiting the scope of such thinking to what is close and available works better than a blue-sky-anything-goes approach.

I liked it a lot but it's not the answer to all innovation challenges. To understand where this can be most useful, let me share some context. A helpful definition of innovation is 'finding new and better ways to win'.

The most important part is the outcome, winning, which implies achieving success against the organisation's purpose and doing so to a greater degree than the alternatives. Many forget that innovation is an active word.

The economist Theodore Levitt drew the distinction between creativity and innovation, creativity being the conception of a new idea and innovation putting the idea to work. And putting ideas to work to achieve a productive result is what people managing innovation need to see.

The other key words are 'new and better'. 'New' is most easily recognised. We all have an expectation of novelty, although often at different levels (I have heard both banking and the global laundry market described as having seen only six significant innovations since the Second World War, a high bar to set for your next team off-site).

'Better' is an element that is more frequently forgotten in the rush to start having ideas. It implies understanding who you are innovating for, what value is to them, and arriving at an answer that gives them more.

They may not be able to describe this accurately themselves, but they will know it when they see it, making this one of the bigger parts of the challenge.

To get all of this to happen, from understanding value and having ideas that could create this value in new and better ways, to actually building or mobilising an organisation to make this a reality and a success is a long and difficult process.

Inside the Box focuses on just part of the chain, but this it does very well indeed.

It describes five processes labelled Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) that use simple steps and some underlying principles, which include taking things fro

m the closed world of the situation, not adding to it, and allowing function to follow form. This means suspending judgement while you have apparently daft ideas to change elements of an existing product, process or system, then looking positively at the result, and from there developing new and better solutions.

Let me give you some examples using a few of the SIT methods.

Subtraction requires listing the components of the product, process or system, taking an important one away, then asking who might value this and why, then honing the answer. Examples include the Betty Crocker cake mix that was a failure when fully pre-prepared (too much of a cheat), but when egg was removed and 'add an egg' became part of the process, sales soared. The iPod Shuffle is an iPod without the functionality. Twitter is mass communication without length.

Division puts the components in a different order, leading to pre-pay mobile telephony (put paying the bill ahead of usage) and modern versions of the airline check-in process.

Multiplication reproduces a component and then changes it in some way, which leads to a Febreze air freshener with two fragrances. By alternating them, people in the room appreciate the effect vastly more because as their senses numb to the first, the second stimulates them with something new.

Task unification involves reallocating elements, leading to patients not video cameras helping locate abdominal pain, and to the security system employed by Ticketmaster (and others), which requires typing in words displayed as woozy pictures (called Captcha), being used to identify words being scanned from old manuscripts that computers can't decode on their own.

I also loved the book's attitude to conflict. Chapters are brought to life with vivid anecdotes of rebellious groups of managers, scientists and students confronting this approach in 'high scepticism situations'.

The stories recount hopelessness, turned around as the person in charge trusts the process.

The authors also deal head-on with contradictions that apparently resist resolution. By deconstructing the challenge and exploring other arrangements, the authors show how Spanish Republicans survived an impossible siege and how astronomers got vastly more computing power without a budget.

So I commend this book to you if you regularly face tricky problems, you'd like a source of new and better ideas, and you're willing to invest energy in learning a different approach.

Doing it for real with just the book to guide you will be harder than getting help from someone who has done it before, but I think you stand a good chance if you add Inside the Box to your closed world, suspend your judgement and do as it says.

Charlie Dawson is a partner at The Foundation, a growth and innovation consultancy.

BOOK: Inside the Box: Why the best business solutions are right in front of you, by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg.

Profile Books, £12.99

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime