An Innovator's Guide: 5 Ways to Think Outside the Box

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Five Ways to “Think Different” by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen co-authors of "THE INNOVATOR’S DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators"


A few years ago, we set out to discover where innovative ideas come from. So much had been written on the innovation of organizations – thanks, primarily, to the pioneering work of our co-author, Clayton M. Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution.

But we wanted to know more about the actual people who came up with these brilliant ideas.

We set out on a study that involved over 5,000 executives, and identified five skills that innovative thinkers regularly practice – and that anyone can follow to become innovators themselves. During the course of this study, we discovered that of the five skills, the most important one is a cognitive skill we call “associational thinking.” It helps you discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. It’s what Apple means when they say, “Think Different.”

Everyone knows they need to be “creative” and “think outside the box” – to “associate.” The million dollar question has always been – how?

To strengthen your capacity to think different and weave together unexpected connections across ideas, consider the following exercises. Most take relatively little time, but when done consistently, they can deliver positive results in generating new ideas.

Tip #1: Force new associations

Innovators sometimes practice “forced associating” or combining things that we would never naturally combine. For example, they might imagine (or force) the combination of features in, say, a microwave oven with a dishwasher. This could deliver an innovative product idea, such as a dishwasher that uses some type of heating technology to clean and sanitize dishes that eliminates water completely. Or in the case of actual appliance companies, EdgeStar produced a countertop-size dishwasher, while KitchenAid went for an in-sink approach. Both are the size of a microwave oven, use limited amounts of water, and wash far faster than a full-size machine.

To practice forced associations, first consider a problem or challenge you or your company is facing. Then try the following exercises to force an association that you normally wouldn’t make: Pick up a product catalog and turn to the twenty-seventh page. What does the first product that you see have to do with the problem you are thinking about? Does the way it solves a problem for a customer have anything to do with your problem? For example, what if you run across an iPad product in your random page flipping and your work challenge is figuring out how to increase herbal tea sales? Looking at an iPad might spur surprising syntheses, such as creating a novel iPad application to capture the interest of potential customers (or provide a means for current customers to become repeat customers).

"To escape from idea ruts, engage in activities that provoke an analogy or metaphor for your company’s products or services." -Co-authors, THE INNOVATOR's DNA, Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen

The point is to randomly find things to associate with your problem and work your best to freely make associations, lots of them.

Tip #2: Take on the persona of a different company

Follow the lead of TBWA, which often holds a designated “disruption day” to get new ideas. After defining a key strategic question or challenge, TBWA people haul out large boxes full of hats, shirts, and other things from some of the most innovative companies in the world, like Apple and Virgin. They put on the clothing and assume the persona of someone from that company to look at their challenge from an entirely different perspective. Alternatively, write down a list of companies (in related and unrelated industries) on a stack of index cards. Use the card stacks to create random pairings of your company with another. Then creatively brainstorm ideas on how the two could create new value through partnership or merger. By combining the strengths of both companies, you may surprise yourself with new products, services, or process ideas.

Tip #3: Generate metaphors

To escape from idea ruts, engage in activities that provoke an analogy or metaphor for your company’s products or services. To illustrate, what if watching TV were more like reading a magazine? (This is how TiVo has changed TV watching; you can start and stop when you want, skip over advertisements, and so on.) Or, what if your product or service could incorporate the benefits of some of today’s hottest products like the Wii or iPhone? What might those new features or benefits be?

Tip #4: Build your own curiosity box

Start a collection of odd, interesting things (e.g., a slinky, model airplane, robot, and so on) and put them in a curiosity box or bag. Then, you can pull out unique items randomly when confronted with a problem or opportunity. Visit local second-hand shops and flea markets in a new city to pick up surprising treasures (ranging from a Kuwaiti camel bell to an Australian didgeridoo) that might provoke a new angle on an old problem.

Interestingly, the global innovation design firm IDEO devotes full-time employee effort to finding new things for its “Tech Box.” IDEO designers rely on Tech Box items (each box has hundreds of high-tech gadgets, clever toys, and a wide variety of items) when brainstorming for new ideas, because odd, unusual things often trigger new associations. It may sound silly, but this can provoke the most random associations, literally forcing us out of our habitual thinking patterns.

Tip #5: SCAMPER!

Try Alex Osborn and Bob Eberle’s acronym for insight, SCAMPER: substitute; combine; adapt; magnify, minimize, modify; put to other uses; eliminate; reverse, rearrange. Use any or all of the concepts to rethink the problem or opportunity you are addressing (this is particularly useful when thinking of redesigning a product, service, or process). Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys is a useful resource for more details about the SCAMPER method.

Innovative thinkers cross-pollinate ideas in their own heads and in others – they connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations. While many of the people we studied take their associational skill for granted, anyone can learn to “think different” – practice these associating skills as if you were training a muscle. In time, your capacity to craft creative solutions to problems will become powerful, at work and beyond.

Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen are co-authors of THE INNOVATOR’S DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Harvard Business Review Press). Dyer is the Horace Beesley Professor of Strategy at the Marriott School, Brigham Young University. Gregersen is a professor of leadership at INSEAD. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks