Book Review: Inside the Box
There's a new book out, about a relatively old subject, that merits your attention. The book, entitled Inside the Box, is about Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) and its predecessor, the ideas and concepts behind TRIZ from Altshuller. Inside the Box presents itself as a bit controversial, arguing that you don't need to think "outside the box"for great new ideas, that often focusing on a "closed world" of working inside the box can create great ideas, when using the SIT formulation.
If you aren't familiar with SIT, that's because it is a relatively new technique for innovation, based on the work of Altshuller. Altshuller and others popularized TRIZ, which was based on research into patents. The team behind the SIT method conducted further research and felt that the "majority of new, inventive and successful products result from five templates: subtraction, division, multiplication, task unification and attribute dependency." Thus, these "templates" along with the concept of a "closed world" - working inside the box - form the basis of SIT.
The book notes that many people believe you have to get outside your current context to be innovative. Classic brainstorming encourages a divergent and then convergent approach. SIT suggests a "closed world" approach, requiring the innovator to work with what exists close at hand.
Inside the Box
On the whole, I found this book to be a good overview of the SIT method. The different templates (subtraction, multiplication, task dependency etc) were well defined and the authors provided good case studies. At the end of each chapter the authors provide basic step by step instructions on how to use each template, so any innovator or innovation team can pick up the tools quickly.
The book's focus on creativity and the nature of unbounded thinking is a bit of a strawman. I've participated in many idea generation sessions and innovation projects, and very few programs suggest that completely unbounded thinking is beneficial. Whether you are an "inside the box" guy or an "outside of the box" gal, most people recognize that some constraints on thinking actually aid innovation.
The challenge, for many organizations, is that thinking "in the box" often poses unintentional constraints. We are often asked by our clients to help their teams to think "outside the box". By this the executives don't necessarily mean outside what SIT calls the "closed world". What they really want are compelling new ideas that will solve customer challenges and drive new profits or revenue. Their "box" is limited, cramped thinking based on cultural norms.
Inside the Box does an excellent job of describing the SIT approach, and provides detailed step by step approaches for each of the templates documented within the SIT methodology. It is a valuable addition to any innovation bookshelf.
While Inside the Box is a good book, I have a couple of concerns about the positioning of SIT as a solution and how innovation and idea generation are presented generally.
Early in the book the authors present a study that indicates that brainstorming isn't a great option for idea generation. Many innovation consultants and authors have lampooned brainstorming, and not without reason. Not all idea generation is brainstorming, but brainstorming has its place as a tool or approach, not "the" tool, but "a" tool. In my opinion, books lose credibility when they present a strawman that many people recognize is exaggerated to make the case for their preferred alternative.
Next, the requirement of a "closed world" means that every SIT project begins with an existing solution. Many times, a radical rethink of an existing product or service is valuable, and SIT offers this methodology. However, there are many situations where a disruptive new solution is required that demands capabilities outside the "closed world". SIT doesn't work well in a truly disruptive or divergent setting.
Finally, I feel the authors fell into a trap that many who write about innovation tools encounter. That trap is what I call the "one perfect tool" trap. When there are so many innovation tools, methodologies and techniques, many authors writing about a particular tool present their favorite technique in relatively absolutists terms. The authors of Inside the Box are no exception. SIT is presented as a tool that is almost always the best tool, and several studies are presented to demonstrate why brainstorming or other creativity techniques aren't up to snuff. I've got no beef with people who are passionate about a tool or methodology, but no innovation tool solves every requirement or situation.