Innovation – Escaping the Box: Even with Bars on the Windows

By Barry Maher

One of my favorite ways of generating innovative thinking is to list several possible solutions to a problem, then consider the exact opposite of each. Do any of the opposites make sense? How good a case could you make for any of them if you had to convince someone else? Do any of them sound better than the first group? What about combining an approach with its opposite?

You may not come up with an immediate solution but you will gain a new perspective on the problem—and that may provide a starting point.

Another of my favorites comes from Jack Foster’s book, “How to Get Ideas.” Foster tells of an older office building that housed far more workers than it was ever designed to handle. The problem was that the building had only two elevators. During peak hours it seemed to take forever to get one.

Foster notes that there were several possible solutions the manager of the building could have chosen. She could have had new elevators installed on the outside of the building. She could have had escalators built into one of the stairwells. She might have given perks or prizes for workers who arrived earlier or departed late. She could have established programs encouraging workers to use the stairs, especially those with offices on the lower floors. She could have asked the various tenant companies to stagger their hours.

How did she solve the problem?

How does any magician solve problems? With mirrors. She installed ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall mirrors in all the elevator areas. And it worked. Because, just as she figured, people didn’t mind waiting as much if they could spend their time looking at themselves—and perhaps surreptitiously sneaking a peak at the others waiting with them.

Confronted with too few elevators, the manager solved a different problem. Or more accurately she examined the reality and uncovered and then solved the real problem: the irritation people felt at having to wait.

Tactic: When you’re looking to fill the glass, it’s always worthwhile to try digging deeper, asking yourself, “What’s the real problem here?” Is it not enough elevators or is it something else altogether?
Tip: When you disagree with a company policy ask yourself what they’re really trying to accomplish. What other options can you offer? Maybe you can put up a few mirrors rather than build them an elevator.

Any assumptions can be challenged. Every assumption should be. It’s like the joke about the three men’s clothing shops that opened in the same building all adjacent to each other. It quickly became apparent that there was no way all three could survive.

The man who ran the store at one end of the building had a degree in merchandising. He created a beautiful window display and fronted it with posters proclaiming, “Year-End Clearance.” The businessman at the other end had an MBA in marketing. He took out newspaper, TV and radio ads, did direct marketing and tied it all together with two huge window signs that screamed, “Final Close Out Sale.”

The woman in the middle had no degrees. She’d worked her way up from clerk. She knew very little about marketing  and advertising. But she did come up with a banner to hang across her storefront. It read simply, “Main Entrance.”

In February 1999, an inmate in a city jail was granted a private phone call. Instead of calling his lawyer or his girlfriend this guy called the jail itself. Pretending to be a police official, he instructed them to take a certain prisoner (himself) from jail over to certain address (his girlfriend’s house) and to leave him there. They did.

According to the chief of police, the transfer request was so bizarre that everyone thought it had to be on the up and up.

Talk about outside the box thinking. There’s a self help book in this guy—if anyone can track him down.

Las Vegas, Nevada, 2013

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