We're always told to think outside the box. But it's about time someone spoke up for the box. Because, paradoxically, thinking inside a box can spark creativity, not squelch it. So maybe you don't need to think out of the box. Maybe you just need a new one to think in.
For instance, let's say you manage a bank. Your top marketing person comes to you with an idea to redesign the service areas of the bank. He says, "We want the bank to be less formal—hipper and more inviting to our young professional customers." Quick: How do you envision the new space? What do the light fixtures look like? What color are the walls?
Your mind is probably a blank. Perhaps that's what people seek when they recommend an outside-the-box, "blank slate" approach. But the blank is not helping you create a less-formal lobby. After all, your team might sit at the conference-room table and nod vigorously that the goal is to be "more inviting to young professionals," but secretly, the team members are envisioning success differently. Jon imagines Alicia Keys's music piped into the lobby, Brenda ponders adding a playroom for young children, and Sonny thinks all the customers would be happier if the clerks would just smile more ("We should develop a smiling policy").
What if your marketing person had said this instead: "We want the space to be more like a Starbucks and less like a post office." Suddenly, it's easier to picture the goal (and to answer the light-fixture and color questions). Notice, though, that the Starbucks vision is constraining. It takes options off the table. The Starbucks vision is judgmental—it says yes to Alicia Keys and no to the playroom. It's helpful—it constrains freedom, yes, but it also dramatically improves the chances that your team will hit the target.
Boutique hotelier Chip Conley has used this principle ingeniously in creating his unique properties. He told his team: Let's bring magazines to life. His company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality, designed the Hotel Vitale in San Francisco to be "Real Simple meets Dwell." That's a crystal-clear box. And it makes it easy for his team to brainstorm features of the new hotel. The architects elevated the yoga studio to a prime top-floor location, rather than tossing some token yoga mats next to the elliptical machines in the gym. The front-desk clerks waged war on clutter: Imagine a countertop with no pen cups or frequent-stay rewards-club brochures. The housekeepers don't just clean the rooms; they organize them. Other Conley hotels feature a Rolling Stone theme and a New Yorker theme. We can all be grateful that he hasn't yet unveiled the Economist hotel, where staffers continually remind you of your ignorance of foreign affairs.
We don't know how the HBO show Entourage was pitched, but it easily could have been "Sex and the City for men." There's a lot of meaning packed in those six words. You know the male friendship will be the heart of the series, that it will involve a mix of comedy and drama, and that there will be a lot of skirt chasing (but fewer cosmos, and the shoe worship is for sneakers, not Manolos). This high-concept pitch ensures consistency across lots of different decisions: who is cast, what they wear, what they say, where episodes are set.
As we've seen, a well-constructed box can help people generate new ideas. Imagine if, as in the case of the Hotel Vitale team, you could flip through hundreds of pages of Real Simple magazine for strategic inspiration. Research tells us that brainstorming becomes more productive when it's focused. As jazz great Charles Mingus famously said, "You can't improvise on nothing, man; you've gotta improvise on something."
Keith Sawyer, author of the insightful book Group Genius, spent years studying the work of jazz groups and improvisational theater ensembles. He found that structure doesn't hamper creativity; it enables it. When improv comedians take the stage, they need a concrete stimulus: "What if Romeo had been gay?" The stimulus can't be: "Go on, make me laugh, funnyman."
"Improv actors are taught to be specific," Sawyer says. "Rather than say, 'Look out, it's a gun!' you should say, 'Look out, it's the new ZX-23 laser kill device!' Instead of asking, 'What's your problem?' say, 'Don't tell me you're still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'" The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff.
Founder Howard Schultz famously fell in love with the concept of the "third place," a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe meeting places other than home or the office. The third place, the focus of Oldenburg's book The Great Good Place, is an outside-the-box kind of term. It says, "think about something other than home or work." But it lacks specificity, which dulls its usefulness as a creative stimulus. Fortunately, the subtitle of Oldenburg's book fills the gap: "Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day." Pick any one of those and combine them with our starting point—the redesign of the bank. Could you envision a bank that feels more like a coffee shop? More like a beauty parlor? A bar? Some of these are terrible business ideas, but the stimulus is effective. Your mind is off to the races.
So don't think out of the box. Go box shopping. Keep trying on one after another until you find the one that catalyzes your thinking. A good box is like a lane marker on the highway: It's a constraint that liberates.
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Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best- selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. If you've devised a simple strategy for your company, tell us.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.