If you want to be more innovative, should you encourage people to think outside the box?

For the answer to this question, try a little experiment with your team and see the results for yourself. Organize everyone on your team into pairs. Then take out a brick, or just show a slide with a picture of a brick.

Experiment 1: Ask everyone to go back and forth in their pairs and list different ways they can use a brick. There are no restrictions. I give them about 30 seconds. Typical answers involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Experiment 2: Then asked everyone in their pairs to go back and forth and list uses of a brick for something random (e.g., on the body, in the kitchen, on a beach). For example, if "a kitchen" were the random context, people might use it to make paninis, flatten a lump of dough, or use it as a trivet. If "the body" was the random context, you might use the brick to pump up your biceps or loofah your skin. Again, do this for about 30 seconds.

Next, ask everyone this following question, "Which approach yielded solutions that were more creative?" And give them three options: first is the first way where you could suggest any use of a brick, the second way is where you could gave uses for a random context, and the third you felt they were roughly the same.

When I ask groups this question, nearly 90 percent choose the second. In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method -- and the solutions are more relevant to the problem at hand. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions. This is what happens when you think outside the box. You invite a lot of low-value and often irrelevant solutions.

In some respects, this seems counterintuitive. By limiting the range of solutions, we actually increase creativity and value. As it turns out, the brain loves constraints. It helps us think better and focus. We need a box.

How can this be applied in a business setting?

A client wanted to branch out into branch into new markets. To accomplish this, they originally asked employees the unbounded question, "How can we adapt our (commodity) product to new markets?" Unfortunately, they found that most suggestions were mundane.

As a way of increasing creativity and value, they created a list of 200 different industries/roles - one for each business day of the year ­- and posted it on a wall. Each day management chose a different industry/role from the list (e.g., toll booth collectors, nurses/healthcare, or librarians) and used that to brainstorm new opportunities for their product for that industry/role. They found that they generated greater insights when bounding the conversation around a specific market segment. Giving them different boxes increased the range of solutions.

Although it might be tempting to throw structure out the window in the name of innovation, this may kill the very thing you want. Paradoxically, more structure often leads to greater innovation.

The issue is not the expansiveness of your thinking. You are looking in the wrong place.

In other words, "don't think outside the box; find a better box."

Apply this to your innovation efforts and you will increase the value of solutions while reducing the effort involved.