Companies that lack a systematic approach to harnessing their people’s creativity will forfeit growth opportunities

September 10, 2013
  • The Key to Creative Breakthroughs—and Not Being Left Behind by the Pace of Accelerating Change—Is Doubting Everything, Even Deeply Held Beliefs, According to Thinking in New Boxes, by Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny
BOSTON, September 10, 2013—In an age of accelerating change, when the lifespan of good ideas gets shorter and shorter, companies that lack a practical, systematic approach to harnessing their people’s creativity will forfeit growth opportunities and cease to be masters of their own destiny, warns a new book by experts at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Most creative breakthroughs start with doubt that the way things are done today will still be viable in the future. But most individuals and organizations aren’t willing or able to radically reappraise their deeply held beliefs, say the authors of Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity (Random House), which officially goes on sale today. Those who do follow a systematic process for questioning and replacing beliefs can expect to produce game-changing innovations. Those who don’t can expect to get blindsided—and left behind—by change.

“Revolutionary breakthroughs happen because someone had the audacity to think the unthinkable and completely redefine the way we see the world,” says Luc de Brabandere, a senior advisor and fellow at BCG and a coauthor of the book along with BCG senior global specialist Alan Iny (Twitter: @alan_iny).

Adds Iny, “Many conventional notions about creativity—like ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘blue-sky’ brainstorming—are inadequate and can even hinder the creative process.”

A Five-Step Plan to Practical Creativity—and Enduring Growth

In the book, de Brabandere and Iny offer a five-step plan to spark the next big idea. This starts with the recommendation to doubt everything. The systematic approach is based on their work with hundreds of companies around the world as well as analysis of famous cases of creative breakthroughs: Dick Fosbury and his daring decision to go over the high jump backward instead of forward; the innovators who triggered a technology revolution by believing that software did not have to be a product and could be collaboratively developed in an open-source environment; the team at NASA who decided to land an 800-pound supercomputer called Pathfinder on Mars by using airbags instead of booster rockets.

Thinking in New Boxes is a guide to understanding how creativity works, and it is filled with specific exercises to jump-start the creative process in a way that is both inspired and practical. The systematic approach is relevant for any area or function within an organization—and not just for new strategic visions but also for almost any other goal or activity, from growth to cost-cutting to organization design.

• What is a box? The human brain needs frames of reference, or sets of mental assumptions, to make sense of the world. It’s how cognitive functions work. Sometimes these frames of reference are known as paradigms or mindsets. Humans literally cannot think without these “boxes.” Boxes help people conceptualize and understand the world, assign meaning, reduce uncertainty, and take action. But outdated beliefs can prevent people from seeing and adapting to change or, more important, seeing opportunities to create change. For example, Blockbuster was stuck in a mental box that defined the company’s business model in terms of retail stores. Blockbuster’s leaders could not see the market shifting and passing them by as Netflix created a new box that replaced “retail” with “subscription” and “store” with, first, “online streaming” and then “content creation.”

• Why are new boxes needed for breakthrough thinking? Individuals cannot get outside of mental boxes completely—the idea itself is impossible. The conventional notion of business creativity, “thinking outside the box,” is a misnomer because once people step outside of an old box, they are automatically thrust into a new one. The brain must create a new one in order to keep thinking, perceiving, and ordering the surrounding world. Thinking outside the box gets people out of their comfort zone, but it gives no inkling about how to redefine beliefs to create new boxes or about which new boxes to pick out of an infinite range of possibilities.

• How can leaders and their companies create and choose new boxes?There is a systematic process for doing so, according to the authors.Thinking in New Boxes outlines exercises that deliberately challenge and dismantle preconceptions; encourage views that may be unconventional, unpopular, unattractive, or even seemingly misguided; lead people to imagine radical and unlikely scenarios and how they may impact the organization; and force people to intentionally make large leaps away from past practices and beliefs.

“The biggest misconception about creativity is that it’s passive,” notes Iny. “People have this misplaced notion that ‘creativity’ just happens, that big ideas magically pop into your mind, but very often that’s not how it works. Creativity requires a structured process.”

“To paraphrase the chemist Linus Pauling, the best way to find truly creative solutions is to force yourself to have lots and lots of ideas,” says de Brabandere. “At first, some of those ideas may feel radical, or even impossible, and totally contrary to how you see the world. But that is precisely the point. The practical benefit to thinking the unthinkable is that it opens your eyes to risks and opportunities that you may not otherwise see.”

~ Curated by The Marketing Curator and Pass The Idea (


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