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STRATEGIC THINKING: Back inside the box
By Betty Parker

According to current research and a November article in The Wall Street Journal, thinking "outside the box" may not be the best way to foster creativity and innovation anymore. "Very few people are good at developing ideas without receiving guidance and boundaries," claim Harvard University researchers who studied workplace creativity.

"Managers are at their most creative when focused on specific, provocative questions. This brings out the best in people who are used to being creative within limits, while also keeping the ideas within the realm of the possible," say Harvard scientists in a November 29, 2007 Wall Street Journal article. "Ideally, the questions should force managers to approach their product or business from an unconventional direction, and should be carefully selected before the sessions have even begun. Instead of asking generic questions like ?How could we cut costs?' a supervisor could ask, ?What element of our business would we have to eliminate to cut costs 50%, and are there customers who do not need that element?'"

In "out of the box thinking," business leaders have often presented exercises like the following to their staffs: Imagine that we asked you to invent an idea for a new business in the next 20 minutes. The Harvard researchers advise that, "This task is so broad and vague that you would probably think you couldn't do it. We have often seen people give up without really trying when confronted with such an amorphous challenge."

Alternatively, these researchers asked the following, more focused question and measured the results: What do Rollerblades, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and Spider-Man movies have in common? These researchers claim that, "The answer is they are all based on the same business concept. In each case, a firm has taken something children love and reproduced it in an extreme, more expensive form for adults. The same notion has led to over 25 new product categories, including gourmet jelly beans, baseball fantasy camps, $200 sneakers, 20-foot-high sand castles for corporate parties, paintball, space tourism, and Disney collectibles."

By using this drill as a warm-up exercise, these researchers say that they "helped a consumer goods company identify an opportunity for a chilled beverage that captured 20% of the market in the first six months after its launch. A print media company used it to come up with ways to triple the firm's penetration of the Hispanic market. A plastic pipe manufacturer uncovered an immediately exploitable opportunity to reduce costs by 75%. A regional bank came up with a process that more than doubled the sales productivity of the branches involved in the pilot."

So how does your work environment foster creative thinking? What kinds of questions are you asking or have been asked of you to problem-solve and innovate? Whether thinking inside the box or outside of it, what matters most is to think. Don't expect to be told what to do on the job. Side-step the status quo and forge new routes to better business. Find fresh and different ways to advance your company. Determine how your individual contribution can make a difference within your team, work group or department. Strategize. Create. Think.

You can read more - and see a video - about the creative thinking study by selecting the link below:

To learn more about strategic planning and thinking, contact Betty Parker at (803) 622-4511 for upcoming training classes on this topic and more.

Betty Parker is a business consultant, author, and speaker.  Visit her website at 

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