It’s become common wisdom when trying to come up with innovative ideas that you should “think outside the box”. The origin of the phrase appears to be related to the “nine dots” puzzle, shown on the right.
The challenge is to link all 9 dots using four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once. At first glance, your temptation is to think “inside the box” – that is, the area bound by the 8 dots around the perimeter of the puzzle – but the puzzle can’t be solved that way.
As the phrase has evolved to an idiom over time, it is now used to encourage lateral thinking by removing constraints as a means of boosting creativity. But telling someone to “think outside the box” rarely inspires creativity, unless you are very specific about which constraints to remove. In our own work, we’ve found that adding constraints can actually be an incredibly effective technique in solving problems – rather than thinking outside the box, you should consider getting a smaller box.
When researching this post, I came across a concept called “prison innovation”. For someone who is incarcerated, they are constrained in all sorts of ways, including literally being inside a box. This tends to lead to very innovative uses of limited resources. The Netflix series Orange Is The New Black has several examples of this. That piqued my interest, as my house is just a few kilometres away from Ravenhall prison, which last week was the subject of a riot in response to new anti-smoking legislation that came into effect today. I asked a friend of mine, who works in a prison, about this concept of “prison innovation” and whether he had any examples of it. Some of those examples are not fit to print on a business blog in the interests of length, the current effectiveness of these techniques, and decency, but there were plenty of examples.
As my friend tells it, before the days of the negative keys which are used today, prisoners would memorise the pattern of officers’ keys over days, weeks, or months. They would etch the key pattern into bars of soap. Using lighers or gas cookers, they would melt any metal they could get their hands on, and mould their own keys. And before Melbourne's infamous Pentridge closed, they would break into offices after hours with their “keys”, and phone home, the TAB, organize drug drops, and whatever else they felt like doing.
Prisoners are innovative not because they are thinking outside the box, but because they are thinking inside of it – and they are in a very small box.
Another example of innovation under constraints comes from Africa, where more people have a mobile phone than a bank account. This has led to some fascinating innovations in mobile banking - statistics from the World Bank show that 16 percent of sub-Saharan mobile users have used their phones for banking purposes, a figure larger than any other global region.
Using Constraints to foster Innovation
Management professor at Vanderbilt University, David Owens and his new book are part of a movement to use constraint to power innovation. As he explains, giving creative people parameters fosters innovation by providing them with specific challenges to overcome. He breaks down constraints into six categories: Individual, Group, Organization, Industry, Technology, and Society. By innovating a solution which specifically overcomes the challenges posed by each of these six groups, you can strategically develop a powerful and effective answer to a real world problem.
Whitney Johnson puts in another way in her article for the Harvard Business Review. As she explains, the friction generated by communities of different people being forced to work together and communicate helps drive innovation. When employees see themselves as a part of a group working to solve a problem bigger than themselves they are more deeply engaged than when they are simply asked to generate an idea that will make more money for the company. Constraints on resources like time or money drive innovation by creating immediate consequences. If necessity is the mother of invention than constraint is the father of innovation, as creative people often push against stifling boundaries by creating new, disruptive ways to overcome them.
By giving projects specific constraints, rather than asking for ideas with full freedom, innovators are forced to work together to overcome a problem with an exciting real-world solution, driving them towards creative, new ideas.
Constraints in Workforce Strategy
If you want to innovate like a prisoner or an economy without legacy infrastructure, you can apply the “Smaller Box” innovation technique yourself by constraining current practice in a specific and targeted way. For example, with clients we regular ask questions like “what would happen if you could no longer source XYZ roles in the open market?” With some roles, this is not much of a logical stretch. Data Scientists, the “sexiest job of the 21st Century”, are in demand globally. Stats from Wanted Analytics on the US labor market show that demand for predictive analytics skills has increased 63% in a year, with the highest demand for these roles in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. Where demand is growing much faster than supply, it’s not a big logical leap to assume that it will be difficult in the near future to source these skills in the open market without entering a price war. By grounding the constraints in real trends and patterns that are emerging, and hypothesizing about alternate sourcing strategies, companies can get very innovating with their approach.
More often than not, they realize that in order to react to likely constraints in the future, they need to start implementing their workforce strategies today by anticipating and responding to those constraints. Constraining yourself, and innovating around those constraints, gives you and advantage when constraints are forced upon you.