A Systematic Approach to Innovation

When we’re trying to innovate, we can get trapped into the old thinking that the solution has to be out there somewhere. We need to think outside the box to find the solution to a problem. So, we gather up a team and start brainstorming. I mean, just think of the word, the image that word conjures up: a wild free for all flurry of ideas from everyone, and there’s no bad ideas and no limits. I have participated in and facilitated my share of brainstorming sessions and I was not thrilled with the results and thought maybe I was doing it wrong. And, then, I read Inside the Box: a Proven System of Creativity and Breakthrough Results by Boyd and Goldenberg. Within its chapter one there was a heading: “How brainstorming produces fewer and lower quality ideas.” Ah-ha! This validated my experiences about using brainstorming to innovate in a technical design space.  

Let me share with you what the book said about brainstorming. It originated in 1953 by Alex Osborn, who was a founder and manager of an advertising agency. His idea was to stimulate creativity of individuals by encouraging teams of people working together. The premise was that a group of people working together is more effective than the same number working alone. If you have a great number of ideas, then there’s a greater chance that good ideas are in there somewhere. The brainstorming idea caught on. I mean, it’s a simple technique that can be easily applied to many organizational settings and, honestly, the sessions can be kind of fun.  

In the 1980s and 1990s, academic scholars started to study brainstorming. Was it really the best method to create ideas to solve problems? Did the number of participants matter, or how long they met? What’s the real contribution of brainstorming? Results were repeatedly replicated.  Quoting Boyd and Goldenberg from their Inside the Box book, “Brainstorming does not generate more creative ideas simply because people are in the same room” (31). “Fifty years of hard evidence showed that despite its popular appeal, brainstorming offers no advantage of your goals to improve your creative problem solving” (32).  

  • “There was no advantage to a brainstorming group over a group of the same number of individuals working alone.  
  • The brainstorming group came up with fewer ideas than individuals working alone.  
  • The quality or creativity of the ideas generated by a brainstorming group was actually lower.  
  • The optimal number of participants in a brainstorming group was about four in direct contrast to the conventional belief that the more the merrier. (31)”  

Boyd and Goldenberg challenges to not do that free-for-all way to innovate: looking out there, outside of the box, to find a solution. But, instead look inward at what we’ve already got. They recommend limiting our realm of possibilities by looking at our Closed World and using a systematic approach to do it.  

Closed World are the things that are within our physical space and time within our reach, sometimes right under our own noses and difficult to see. In Inside the Box, the Closed World Principle is that “the best and fastest way to innovate is to look at resources close at hand” (9). They promote innovating inside the box, not thinking outside the box. And they call it Systematic Inventive Thinking which uses 5 templates (or patterns and techniques) that force us to limit (or close) our world to boost our creative output.  

Boyd and Goldenberg offer ideas and examples for facilitating this type of innovation. One of the examples they give is for a new medical device for an operating suite. It needed a visual output screen to give a medical team information. The original design had a bulky system with its own screen. To give spoilers, the team decided to use the subtraction template of Systematic Inventive Thinking. They made their product better by subtracting stuff from it. They realize that the operating suites where this device would be used already had a screen. The medical device could easily display the information on the screen that the doctors were already looking at. The authors offer lots of these types of examples. Sometimes, the best solutions are almost so simple that they’re hard to see, and we wonder why no one had thought of it before. I believe the concept works, based on my years of experience, and no longer facilitate brainstorming sessions.  

Also, scientists, engineers and other technical folks…well, we’re used to working within systems, anyway. Part of higher education is not just learning stuff but learning a way to think. And that frequently involves structured analysis. The Systematic Inventive Thinking approach shouldn’t feel that foreign of a concept. Now, all of this is not to say that designers can innovate all on our own. We can’t retire to our office or cubical and complete a great design all by ourselves. In my experience, other functions of a diverse organization have valuable input on what a design is and does. And the Systematic Inventive Thinking approach can be used with a diverse team.  

As a designer, to innovate within a closed world, it means we need to understand our use space, our users, the field environment, reliability requirements and all other such things, not just the functional stuff. It seems like a tall order, but we’re not alone! Others on our team want to produce an outstanding, useful product. With that, we will be confident enough to ask tough questions to get the information we need to make designs that are safe, reliable, and easy to use.  

What’s today’s insight to action? When innovation is needed in design, don’t brainstorm. Do coordinate with your team for ideas and to make decisions on how to move forward. Give the book Inside the Box a read. And practice your own innovative thinking through daily life so it’s ready when you need it.  

Boyd, Drew and Jacob Goldenberg. Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity and Breakthrough Results. Simon & Schuster, 2013.