Thinking Inside the Box – The Idea Box

Try to let go of the emotions and attachments you place on things and think more plainly. Consider problems more generally as opposed to specifically, and try to get away from the negative effects of functional fixedness.
Systematically create combinations with an idea box.

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The third tactic is to attempt to strip away meaning and get back to the basics. When we think of creativity, we often conjure visions of elaborate and detailed masterpieces that are one of a kind. But while these masterpieces are indeed products of creativity, we typically make the mistake of thinking that the process of creating them also required detailed and elaborate thought. We fail to recognize that while the product may look intricate and complex, the process that created it may have first required simplicity in thinking. Here’s another tactic that creatives know how to use well: if you want to generate ideas rapidly, you have to learn how to think more plainly.

Thinking more plainly means zooming out and having a looser perspective on things. It’s being able to grasp the gist of the problem rather than getting stuck on its minute details. This type of thinking can be practiced by replacing problem-specific verbs with generic ones when stating the problem. For instance, don’t ask, “How could I drive something over a long distance?” Instead, think, “How could I move something over a long distance?”

Moving covers not just driving but also flying, swimming, sliding, throwing, crawling into a catapult, and more. Using the looser, more generic verb “move” opens up more possibilities because it removes the restrictions of the specific verb “drive.” A study by Clement and colleagues demonstrated how such a technique can dramatically improve performance in tasks requiring analogical thinking. They found that when problems were described in more generic terms, the participants’ performance improved by over 100 percent in some tasks.

So if you’re tackling a creative task or problem, write it down and highlight or circle the verbs and keywords you used. Then consider if there’s a more general umbrella term those words belong under and opt to use that term instead. With your task now phrased in a more generic way, rethink the possibilities considering this new formulation.

Thinking more plainly encourages rapid idea generation because by considering matters in more universal terms you also widen your view of what’s possible. The wider your playground, the more areas you have for exploration and discovery. One of the biggest hindrances to idea generation is when you limit your thinking to a small area only, which is exactly what happens when you phrase the task in specific terms instead of general ones. You start to get tunnel vision and fail to see the variables and givens actually present in the situation. Such a perspective severely limits your options and thus also hinders you from generating ideas and creative solutions for your problem.

In the same way, seeing only the specific, common uses of things is another major obstacle to creativity. Known as “functional fixedness,” this creativity-blocker surfaces when you have everything you need to solve the problem, but you can’t do it because you see only the usual or traditional function of the objects you have. You get stuck (i.e., “fixed”) on that sole specific function of the object, so you’re inhibited from thinking of any more creative uses for it to help you in your current situation.

Psychologist Tom McCaffrey demonstrates this concept by setting the two-rings problem, which challenges participants to fasten together two heavy steel rings with only the following: a two-inch steel cube, a long candle, and a match. He adds the condition that melted wax would not be strong enough to secure the rings together.

The solution to the problem requires an escape from functional fixedness. You would first need to get past the view of the candle’s usual function and recognize that its wick is not just for burning but is also a piece of string you can use to fasten things together. If you allowed yourself to fixate on the common, specific function of a candle, then you would be inhibited from using it to solve your problem.

Thus, the key to generating solutions is to escape the trap of functional fixedness by thinking of objects in more generic terms. To this end, McCaffrey developed the generic parts technique. This technique involves first breaking things down into their component parts with more generic descriptions (e.g., a candle has a wick, which qualifies as a string in general), then asking yourself how you can use that component to solve the problem (e.g., how having a string can help you out). So again, it’s by thinking more plainly in such generic descriptions that you move toward producing effective solutions and creative ideas.

So the next time you want to generate more creative ideas, think in simpler, more general, and universal terms. For instance, instead of wondering how you would paint your store walls in an interesting way, consider how you would make those walls interesting. The more general term “make” opens up more possibilities for your creativity to run wild, going beyond just brushing paint onto a wall and instead leading you to experiment with other materials, textures, and techniques to make that wall truly one of a kind.

Tactic 4: Idea Box

Finally, as many masters of creativity know, creativity is less about making new ideas from scratch and more about forging new connections among already existing ideas, materials, and techniques. This tactic helps you do exactly the latter, in an organized and systematic way, so that you don’t miss any opportunity to spot an interesting connection, wherever it may arise. Called the idea box, this technique involves constructing a grid that helps you have a clear picture of the possibilities and potential areas of innovation no matter what your creative project may be.

To construct your own idea box, first enumerate the essential parameters of the product or service you want to generate ideas on. This builds on other concepts for idea generation, notably combination and methodical lists. For example, you’re trying to invent a new home item. Some parameters you may include are location, shape, material, and purpose. Write these parameters at the topmost row of your grid, like so:

Next, list down the different variations or options under each parameter. For the parameter location, for instance, you may write down living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. In the same way, list different variations of each parameter under their respective columns:

After you’ve completely filled out your grid, now it’s time to generate those ideas! Pick out one option per parameter and conceptualize how they might be combined to create your new home item. For example, combine bathroom (location), irregular (shape), glass (material), and organization (purpose).

Merge these four elements in your mind and let your creativity flow. You want something that’s made of glass, irregularly shaped, and used to organize things in the bathroom. Is there a vision forming in your head? What object are you imagining? Maybe you begin to visualize an interesting star-shaped glass cupboard you can affix to the wall, with each of the star’s spikes holding a different type of bath item, toiletries, or other supplies. This is just one possible combination you can have with the four-by-four idea box above—and using such a grid, you have a total of 254 potential ideas at your fingertips.

Idea boxes are typically four-by-four grids, such as the example above, or often have six-by-six dimensions. For your own idea box, you may have more parameters and options as you see fit, with each addition yielding exponentially more ideas and solutions. As you randomly combine the different variations of your parameters, you stimulate your mind to use even combinations you’ve never considered before. The idea box is a way to generate loads of ideas in an organized and systematic manner. So challenge yourself to use all the variations in your box, such that you force your thinking beyond the comfortable and the obvious in order to obtain truly unique and innovative outcomes. Also remember to avoid evaluating and critiquing your ideas at this stage; just let them flow freely and in all possible directions.

So there you have it—a whole bag of tools that would help you formulate fresh ideas more rapidly and effectively. Whether you strive to list a hundred ideas, opt for forced randomization, try to think more plainly in generic terms, or use the idea box, you’ll be sure to produce at least a gem or two you’ll find useful in crafting that creative output or solution.

Remember, too, that as you use any of those tools, you need to be mindful of the barriers that might hinder your creativity. Avoid judging ideas while in the process of generating them, don’t be quick to blindly believe expert opinion, remember that making mistakes is part of the creative process, and dare to go beyond the comfortable and the familiar. Breaking free of what’s holding you back from creating, combined with using the right tools for idea generation, leads you to the fullest use of your creative potentials.