We’ve all heard it before: “Think outside the box!” But what if the key to innovation is actually the opposite? What if the best way to come up with new ideas is to think inside the box?
That’s the premise of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), a methodology that challenges conventional wisdom and opens up a new world of creative problem-solving.
The Origins of SIT
SIT traces its roots back to the 1940s when a Russian engineer named Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues analyzed over 200,000 patents to decipher the formula of innovation. They identified 40 common inventive principles, such as “The Other Way Around”, “Blessing in Disguise”, and “Continuity of Useful Action.”
These principles were synthesized into a creativity equation known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or TRIZ. SIT was later developed as a more practical approach to innovation, based on TRIZ. The key difference? SIT encourages you to think inside the box.
The Power of the “Closed-World Condition”
The “closed-world condition” is a fundamental principle of SIT. It stipulates that when addressing a problem or trying to improve a product, you must use only elements already existing in the product or problem, or in the immediate environment. This shift in mindset posits that all the building blocks for innovation are right there in front of you, and that the solution only requires the reorganization of existing elements.
Benefits of Thinking Inside the Box
While it may seem counterintuitive, thinking inside the box has numerous advantages:
- It’s a fun puzzle. Like solving a puzzle with a fixed number of pieces, the constraint of thinking inside the box makes it more interesting to find a solution within the boundaries of the “problem world.”
- It increases focus. This approach encourages us to reconsider elements within the problem world and pay closer attention to them.
- It’s a forcing mechanism. By artificially limiting the scope of possibilities, thinking inside the box helps us reach a solution much quicker than traditional brainstorming.
The Innovation Equation: Five Tools of SIT
SIT employs five thinking tools to consider the relations between elements found within the problem world:
- Subtraction: What can you remove from the equation? Many innovative products have disrupted their space by removing something. For instance, Sony removed the recording function to launch the Walkman.
- Multiplication: Can you multiply any element? This isn’t about adding a new element, but multiplying an existing one. For example, Dropbox increased storage space for their users over the years.
- Division: By dividing a problem or product into smaller elements, you can then reorganize them to find a solution or form a new product. Dividing a laptop into smaller elements and extracting the screen will give you a tablet.
- Task Unification: Can several tasks be unified under a single element? USB-C can transmit both data and power on a single cable.
- Attribute Dependency: Breaking or creating dependencies can lead to innovation. For instance, creating a dependency between light levels and the shade of the glass has led to transition sunglasses.
Thinking inside the box often provokes resistance as it runs counter to some of the most ubiquitous intuitions about innovation. However, it’s a formidable creative thinking tool which is actually fun to use. As Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So, the next time someone tells you to think outside the box, why not suggest thinking inside the box instead?