"Thinking Outside the Box" Is Not Enough, and Can Actually Hurt Creativity, Says New Book by Boston Consulting Group Experts

In Thinking in New Boxes, Alan Iny and Luc de Brabandere Reveal the Pitfalls of Traditional Brainstorming Techniques, Offering a New Structured Approach for Unleashing Real Creativity

NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - Aug 6, 2013) - Over nearly a half-century, the phrase "thinking outside the box" has become synonymous with business creativity. But the concept is too limited to drive breakthrough ideas and innovations -- in fact, it can actually hinder creativity, according a new book by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

In Thinking in New Boxes (Random House, September 2013), authors Alan Iny and Luc de Brabandere argue that thinking outside the box doesn't get to the heart of the creative challenge, which is to identify the assumptions -- or "boxes" -- that hold organizations back. Only after rigorously questioning preconceptions can individuals and companies unlock truly breakthrough thinking.

Iny and de Brabandere should know: They've trained thousands of executives on new approaches to business creativity, scenario planning, and strategy development through client engagements, workshops, and seminars. Their book distills many years of experience into five essential steps for sparking the next big idea.

"The brain needs some frame of reference, or set of assumptions, in order to make sense of the world -- it's how our cognitive functions work," explains de Brabandere. "You literally can't think without these kinds of 'boxes,' -- which are also referred to as paradigms, mindsets, or concepts. These things help you order the world, assign meaning, reduce uncertainty, and take action."

What does this mean for creativity? According to Iny, "Creativity is all about stepping outside your old box, and into a new one. The problem with 'thinking outside the box' is that it gives you no direction about identifying old boxes, how to construct new boxes, or which new box to pick out of an infinite number of possibilities."

New Boxes Allow Entirely New Views of the World -- and Entirely New Solutions

Iny and de Brabandere believe that the most transformational and disruptive solutions come not from tweaking old "boxes", but from replacing them altogether. "All boxes eventually become outdated and have to be replaced," says Iny. "The first step to creativity is acknowledging that the way we have been doing things may not continue to serve us well in the future." 

In the book, the authors give the example of an accounting firm, or even an accounting department, that is in trouble: if you wanted to re-appraise or improve it, how would you go about it? "Thinking outside the box" might prompt you to look at what other accounting firms or departments are doing, or whether specific functions could be done better. This approach often leads to copying the practices of others, or settling for incremental improvements of existing practices.

But what if you got out of the "accounting" box altogether and tried an "engineering" box instead -- what would the problem look like then? An engineer might see accounting as a core set of functions with some add-on apps, leading to entirely new and unconventional ways of organizing and improving the accounting enterprise. What if you tried out a "nursing" box? A nurse's approach might be to triage clients and/or financial issues based on severity. Again, one can envision a range of unconventional solutions to conventional accounting challenges, all because we replaced the old box with a new one.

New Opportunities and Business Models Come from Radically New Boxes

"Thinking outside the box still preserves the old box as the core reference point for change, when in many cases the more transformational and effective solution comes from replacing it altogether," says Iny.

The authors cite a broad range of examples of how new boxes can create opportunity, while getting stuck in old boxes can spell demise:

  • Plastics Items v. Plastic Pens: In the 1970s, BIC Corporation's primary business was disposable pens. But in a bid for growth, they refused to get stuck in the "disposable pen" box, and stepped back to ask what business they were really in. By discarding the mental box called "pens," they were able to pick an entirely new one focused on "disposable plastic items" -- achieving rapid growth with a range of new products from pens, to lighters, to shavers.

  • Open-Source v. Proprietary Software. Why does software have to be a proprietary "product?" It doesn't. At least that was the conclusion of a group of visionaries, including Linus Torvald and Richard Stallman. Their new mental boxes (i.e., "free" and "open-sourced") fueled the development of Linux and Android, and a whole new universe of consumer technologies.

  • Retail v. Online. Blockbuster was literally stuck in its mental box of "retail store." Meanwhile, Netflix was revolutionizing content delivery with mental boxes called "mail order" and "subscription," and later a new box called "online streaming." Redbox also revolutionized the retail experience with a new mental box called "self-serve." Blockbuster was unproductively trying to keep the "retail store" concept relevant, while the competition and the entire market sped right past them.

"Thinking outside the box is helpful in that it forces us outside our comfort zone, but it takes us only a very small way toward potential solutions," says de Brabandere. "By contrast, Thinking in New Boxes challenges us not just to step outside the old ways, but also to ask whether they are even viable any more, and what could replace them. That's how revolutionary breakthroughs happen, by completely redefining the way we see the world."

About the Book

Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity offers readers a practical guide to unlocking true creativity: what it looks like, how to achieve it, and what to expect from it. It also provides powerful new tools to improve the creative process, whether for individuals, teams, or entire organizations. Learn more at www.thinkinginnewboxes.com.

About the Authors

Luc de Brabandere is a fellow and a senior advisor of The Boston Consulting Group. He leads strategic seminars with boards, senior executives, and managers from a wide range of companies looking to develop new visions, new products and services, and long- term scenarios to prepare for the future. He also teaches at the Louvain School of Management and the Ecole Centrale in Paris. He is the author or co- author of nine books, including The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity Through Changes in Perception, and a regular columnist for various newspapers in France and Belgium. Prior to joining BCG, he was the general manager of the Brussels Stock Exchange.

Alan Iny is the senior global specialist for creativity and scenario planning at The Boston Consulting Group. He has trained thousands of executives and BCG consultants, runs a wide range of workshops across industries, and speaks around the world about coming up with product, service, and other ideas, developing a new strategic vision, and thinking creatively about the future. Before joining BCG in 2003, he earned an MBA from Columbia Business School and an honors BSc from McGill University in mathematics and management. Iny lives in New York with his wife and daughter. He can be found on Twitter at @alan_iny.

About The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients in all sectors and regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their businesses. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 78 offices in 43 countries. For more information, please visit www.bcg.com.

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