Bury the Box

All of us are creative thinkers. Where we fall off the wagon, though, is that few of us are creative receivers. We don’t honor, celebrate, or often even remember the wonderful creative ideas we have. We have them — and then they’re gone — either because we’ve rejected them or forgotten them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness all that creative thinking! Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring the shower into the boardroom or the family room or the factory floor? That’s where we need creative ideas.

houdiniI give a lot of keynote speeches about creativity and innovation. Often, the people who introduce me ask for texts to read from. The last line of my prepared introduction is, “Tim thinks the phrase ‘out of the box thinking’ should be put back in the box and buried in a deep hole.” It almost always gets a laugh and sets a nice tone for my talk.

But it’s more than just a cute line. Like so many other clichés, “out of the box thinking” has been drained of any significant meaning by overuse and underthought. OBT and countless other meaning-drained phrases — like “paradigm shift”, “light at the end of the tunnel”, and “it is what it is” — seem to exude from people’s mouths when they don’t really have anything to say, but feel the need to say something.

My biggest gripe with OBT is that it makes it sound as though creative thinking is something we should go away somewhere and do as an exception. It makes about as much sense to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think creatively” as it does to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think ethically.” Creative thinking should be available to us on demand, not as an exception.

The real problem is we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that creative thinking is something special. It’s not. We’re all pretty good at it. If you doubt that, think about the last time you took a shower, or a long drive, or simply dozed off to sleep (though I hope not while driving!). You probably had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of creative ideas.

All of us are creative thinkers. Where we fall off the wagon, though, is that few of us are creative receivers. We don’t honor, celebrate, or often even remember the wonderful creative ideas we have. We have them — and then they’re gone — either because we’ve rejected them or forgotten them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness all that creative thinking! Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring the shower into the boardroom or the family room or the factory floor? That’s where we need creative ideas.

So how about we stop talking about thinking outside the box and start looking for ways to open the box and let our natural creative thinking in?

“A cliché or cliche is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel… A cliché is also a term historically used in printing, for a printing plate cast from movable type… When letters were set one at a time it made sense to cast a phrase used over and again as one single slug of metal. That constantly repeated phrase was known as a cliché.” – WIKIPEDIA

How to See What’s Not There

persist_thaumatropeThe other day I participated in an innovation day for the supply chain management division of a large company. The morning was spent on several presentations about how the group had innovated over the past year. One of the major innovations was a regular meeting in which suppliers and customers could talk with one another.

Now, I think this is a great idea, and I’m sure it made things more efficient for everyone. But as good an idea as it is, a regular communication meeting is not breakthrough innovation.

I see this kind of thing a lot — companies patting themselves on the back for breakthrough innovations that are really incremental improvements. Incremental improvement is powerful and positive, but it’s not the same as breakthrough innovation. Incremental change results from Reproductive Thinking. But for game changing innovation, you need Productive Thinking. Here’s the difference:

Reproductive Thinking is a way to refine what’s known. Think of continuous improvement, Six Sigma, or positive incremental change. It’s what you need for ferreting out inefficiencies, improving quality, and ensuring consistent outcomes. Reproductive Thinking is characterized by what the Japanese call kaizen, or good change.

Productive Thinking is a way to generate the new. Think of big AHAs, eureka moments, and breakthrough change. It’s what you need for seeding innovation, disrupting the marketplace, and changing the rules of the game. Productive Thinking is characterized by what I call tenkaizen, or good revolution.

Both types of thinking are useful, but if you want to create something truly new, Reproductive Thinking is the wrong tool. You need Productive Thinking.

When you were a kid, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy, popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a small disk with a picture on either side, mounted on string that lets you spin it. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two pictures merge. A common thaumatrope shows a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirl the disk, you see the bird in the cage. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clear as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Productive Thinking is like spinning a thaumatrope. It’s a way of combining old ideas and insights to make something new.

Striving for reproductive efficiency is great. By all means, go for it. But don’t think that’s the same as game-changing innovation. You can’t fool yourself into being innovative. You need to learn how to think productively.