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Need Inspiration? Don’t Think Too Far Outside The Box, Study Says

Searching for solutions far from the problem doesn’t increase creativity, according to new research.

Need Inspiration? Don’t Think Too Far Outside The Box, Study Says
[Photo: Flickr user Julian Santacruz]

Conventional wisdom on problem-solving says to “think outside the box,” but a new study on creativity suggests that the best ideas are often close at hand.

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Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study using OpenIDEO, an innovation platform where users collaborate to solve problems. The study found ideas that were closely related to a problem helped form the most viable solutions.

This study on creativity and problem-solving is broader in its scope and scale than many other studies on the topic, using more than 350 participants and thousands of ideas over 10 weeks.

The researchers challenged participants to come up with solutions for large-scale problems like “How might we inspire and enable communities to take more initiative in making their local environments better?” and “How can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?” When proposing solutions, collaborators also had to cite what inspired them.

Expert designers from OpenIDEO then rated the solutions based on which concepts were most likely to produce real-world impact and chose 10 winning ideas. The researchers examined which ideas made the shortlist and what inspired those ideas. They found that the best ideas are built on existing concepts within the field of the problem being solved (“near” inspiration), instead of looking to outside sources (“far” inspiration).

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For example, if considering the problem of electronic waste, the best idea would likely be inspired by a local recycling plant with an electronic waste disposal program (“near” inspiration), rather than another industry (“far” inspiration), such as an idea to create compostable electronics based on edible food package technology.

In short: When seeking creative inspiration, the best strategy may be to look at how your peers are solving similar problems.