Inside the Box - Notes

Jacob is a research scientist, Drew is a corporate veteran together they combined theory and practice

Central thesis of the book and its methodology is that innovation and creativity can by systemized and taught using a handrail methodology.

The book covers the use of 5 ‘templates’; subtraction, division, multiplication, task unification and attribute dependency. The system is know as Systematic inventive thinking (SIT).

Products and services where something is removed previously thought to be essential. Discount airlines took away the frills, apple took out the call feature on the iPhone to create the iTouch and sold over 60 million.

Products where a component is divided out and placed elsewhere in the usage situation. Eg remote controls.

A component is copied but then changed in someway. Eg training wheels on a child’s bike, in picture TV that allows you to watch 1-channel and track another.

Task Unification. Certain tasks bought together and unified in 1 product or service which would usually have been considered unrelated to that task. Odour eating socks, facial moisturizers with sunscreen.

Attribute dependency. Functions or attributes that would have seemed unrelated now correlate. Car wipers that respond to rain, radio volume that responds to background noise

Templates provide freedom within constraints. The limits paradoxically boost our creativity. Agatha Christie is the best selling novelist of all time – yet the books are utterly template. Using these templates in effect represents in the box thinking.

Method works in part because it relies on the closed world of what is already in the system or to hand. Function follows form we are generally more creative when we start from the solution and work back to the problem and not the other way around. (Psychologists Ronald A Finke, Thomas B Ward and Steven M Smith.)

J P Guildford an early pioneer in the psychology of innovation and creativity. His most famous study involved the 9 dot puzzle where all the dots have to be joined using only 4 straight lines. The solution requires the lines to extend outside of the imaginary parameters of the square – the idea caught on and the idea that creativity needed you to think outside the box was born.

Roni Horowitz developed ideas around innovation in closed world system and published them in 2000 (Sufficient conditions for Design Inventions). He had an experience with a flat tyre illustrated below which was an epiphany for him). His data looked at innovative ideas to engineering solutions he noticed they all met 2 conditions; Firstly they all contradicted some essential belief in the prevailing wisdom. 2nd all the solutions were contained in a relatively small space surrounding the problem.


Example of a flat tyre stuck on as the wheel nuts are seized – using the jack to provide additional leverage is a closed world solution.

Constraing the problem helps. ‘Creativity is really about an intelligent search among a limited list of possibilities, rather than random, long-distance outward leaps and bounds.’

Rule 1 – look inside the system.

In 1953 Alex Osborn, founder and manager at the BBDO advertising agency coined the term brainstorming to describe a process of collaborative creativity. However research around the method concludes:

There is no advantage between a group and the same number of individuals thinking about the problem

Brainstorming groups usually come up with fewer ideas than individuals working alone

The quality of ideas in brainstorming groups is usually lower.

Lots of likely causal factors but the likely most significant is fear of criticism. This tends to cluster ideas as the extremes very ordinary of very crazy with few that are actually creative by being original and feasible.

Subtraction Method

5 Basic steps

list the product or services internal components

Select an essential component and imagine removing it, fully or partially, eg some feature of the component

Visualize the resulting concept no matter how strange

Ask what are the potential benefits, how could this be used, who might it be valuable to. After considering the concept as is try replacing the function with something from the closed world of the immediate contextual environment

If you can see this new product or service is valuable is it feasible are there ways to refine it to make it more feasible?

Eg taking water out of soup produced more convenient powdered soup

Division method

Division helps finds creative solutions by narrowing or constraining your options by dividing an existing feature into multiple parts and then reconfiguring them in a novel way. It helps overcome structural fixedness – the belief that something can only work 1-way

EG multi track recording in music – arguably invented by Les Paul (Rock and Roll hall of fame)

3 different ways to use division.

Functional – carve out specific functions and position them elsewhere – eg taking the motor out of the air-conditioning unit which can then be put outside less noise and heat. TV remote is another example

Physical division – cut the product into pieces – submarines are compartmentalized.

Preserving division – divide the product into smaller versions of itself – eg thumb drives replicate the storage capacity of the computer but are physically separated. Food portions another example. Timeshares or hotel rooms too.

Multiplication technique

Eg Sears tower. Skyscrapers up that point were a single tube or box. Sears tower is a series of bundled tubes which collectively are stronger and can therefore go a lot higher than a single shape.

Eg Multi-blade razors, double sided tape

As per previous methods list all the products or services.

Take 1 and make copies of it (an arbitrary number)

What are the characteristics if the copied element?

Change 1 of the essential attributes of the characteristic

Visualize the new thing and what potential value it has

Can this be made or used practically?

Don’t fall into the trap of just adding a component, it needs to functionally change.

What we are familiar with we cease to see’ – Anais Nin

We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think’. – Sir Ernst Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner 1908.

Task Unification. Forces an existing feature to work harder or take on new roles.

Eg Cpatcha invented by Dr Luis Von Ahn – used to protect websites against bots it tests if the user is human but the test typically typing in the letters or words seen or identifying objects in a photo serves a dual purpose starting with scanning and digitizing every book in the world at a rate of about 150k a year.

Use the same 5 step process when selecting a component give it an additional task.

External component and use it to perform a task the product accomplishes already – iphone app developers

Internal component and make it do something extra – eg John Doyle theatre director, using actors to play instruments in a musical got rid of the need for an expensive orchestra.

Choose an internal component and have it take on the task of an external component – Eg Great Sunflower project using volunteers to collect data on insect populations.

Attribute dependency.

Where 1 feature creates a dependency in another.

1973 Domino’s pizza launched a campaign guarantying delivery within 30 mins or the pizza was free. The campaign ran for 20 years. Price became a function of time.

Unlike the other techniques in the book this uses variables rather than components. Use a table to list out dependent and independent variables.

Weak links and false contradictions.

A false contradiction occurs when information is hidden from you or when you make an implicit assumption that turns out to be false.

A contradiction has 3 elements 2 arguments and a connector – a weak link that ties them together. Eg I want to increase my salary but my company needs to cut its budget. I need more time to complete my project but my deadline is not flexible. Without the connector the contradiction would not exist.