Creative ideas are the lifeblood of any young business, so how do you get more of them out of your team? One frequent answer to this question is encouraging an adventurous, risk tolerant and playful environment in which employees feel safe to toss out any left-field ideas that occur to them and pursue hunches without fear of ridicule. Allowing teams to "think outside the box" in this way sounds great (and not punishing failure is still a good idea), but sadly this approach has one drawback, according to Stephen Shapiro, author of Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition. Namely, it doesn't work.

So what does? Instead of setting your team free of constraints, suggests Shapiro, you should be providing them with better ones, in effect offering them a carefully constructed box to think in. Why keep your employees' ideas constrained? Simply put, it works better. "If asked to develop a new idea from scratch or with limited constraints, the creativity generated is less than if structure is provided," says Shapiro.

Of course, if you're going to lock your esteemed collaborators in a box, it better be a nice one. How does Shapiro suggest those leading the innovation process provide structure that encourages creativity rather than inhibiting it? It's a tricky point, Shapiro concedes. "The objective with the 'better box' is to define a challenge or question that is not overly broad, yet is not too specific. I call this the Goldilocks principle. You want to define challenges that are 'just right,'" he says, offering four tips on how to strike that balance:

  • Make sure your challenge does not imply a specific solution. For example, when NASA tasked a crowd with creating a "zero-gravity laundry system," the wording alone precluded other possible cleaning methods—or even self-cleaning clothes.
  • Make sure your challenge does not imply a specific "solver.For example, it was assumed that only oil experts could solve a specific problem associated with the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the end, a chemist who had solved a similar problem found the solution. 
  • Make sure your challenge is not overly abstract or fluffy. For example, the United Kingdom wanted to improve its educational system. With a challenge framed this broadly, the type of solutions could be endless, ranging from teachers and their pay, to schools and the curricula.
  • Make sure you are solving the right challenge. A mouthwash manufacturer, after receiving feedback from customers, set off to create an alcohol-free version. This proved costly and less effective. As it turns out, customers weren't concerned about the alcohol content; they were opposed to the burning sensation. Creating a non-burning alcohol-containing mouthwash was a lot easier.

Shapiro also suggests that reframing your idea-generating questions slightly could pay big dividends. “To create a better box, consider asking: “Who else has solved a problem like this?” he suggests, offering an example. “A toothpaste manufacturer wanted to create a non-bleach, non-abrasive whitening toothpaste. Instead of focusing on whitening teeth, they asked a different question altogether: “Who else makes whites whiter?” The obvious answer is laundry detergent that actually uses a blue dye to create the optical illusion of whiteness.  As a result, they created an instant whitening toothpaste containing blue dye.”

And it's not only in the world of dental hygeine that constraints can help companies spur employees to more useful innovations, according to Shapiro who has illustrative examples from a range of industries, including a manufacturer that looked to its employees to come up with new uses for it commodity product. When the higher ups simply let brains run wild, “the solutions generated proved to be trite and uncreative,” so they tried a different approach. “They brainstormed 200 different roles, such as toll book collectors, nurses, librarians, etc.  Each day, employees were asked to find new applications for the product for a specific role.   The quality and quantity of solutions increased significantly, as well as the relevance,” says Shapiro.