What makes creative thinking so difficult is also what makes it valuable: it challenges both what we know and what we think we know we know.

The real struggle to innovate stems from the danger in the latter of the two. How can we change and improve what we don't realize is broken? How can we escape our routines, or default habits, if we can't look pass them? Even when we attempt to change something, how can we be certain our solution is the ideal one?

Consider the empty box problem, a timeless story of the problem perspective plays in the role of creativity and innovation. The story was first shared with me by Terrence O'Hanlon and goes something like this:

Due to complexities in their manufacturing line, a popular toothpaste company would occasionally, accidentally, ship empty boxes to their customers.

Not only did the boxes cost money to ship, but when customers received the boxes they would often complain. Ultimately the toothpaste company began to lose customers who would seek out inventory for their stores from other, more reliable suppliers.

One day the factory gathered their top managers and creative minds and told them they would need to focus their efforts on solving the empty box problem.

After nearly six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on research and ideation, the factory came up with what they thought was a fairly smart smart solution to their problem. They would add highly sensitive scales to the factory line.

Any time an empty box would reach the scale it would be weighed, the line would stop and a loud buzzer would sound, at which point a factory worker would need to walk over and remove the empty box. Problem solved, right?

Yet the company quickly ran into another issue: just a few months after rolling out the new scale system there were no empty boxes being reported. The scales weren't encountering any empty boxes at all.

Confused by the results, the factory manager traveled down to the factory from his city office to see what was going on. He noticed that by one of the supply lines, just a few feet before one of the new scales, someone had placed an inexpensive desk fan. The manager noticed that as boxes rolled down the line, empty ones would merely be blown off the belt by the desk fan.

When asked about the fan, an employee on the factory line standing nearby explained: "Oh that? We put it there when we got tired of hearing the buzzer ring."

The real difficulty of creative change isn't the implementation. Change is easy once you know what needs changing.

What's dramatically more difficult is being able to see the real problem you're attempting to solve. This is particularly true when the problem is poorly understood or explored.

For the toothpaste factory managers, going down to the factory to witness how empty boxes traveled across the floor may have opened their mind to concepts they couldn't see when they were up in their offices trying to solve the empty box problem with whiteboards and dollars.

In our own lives we face similar challenges with innovating.

To get around this issue we simply need to look at what the experts recommend we do: tinker and embrace possibly being wrong.

Steven Johnson writes in his book Where Good Ideas Come From:

"Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore...When we're wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies. Being wrong on its own doesn't unlock new doors in the adjacent possible, but it does force us to look for them."

And Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his book The Black Swan:

"The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves...The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible."

Habits may keep things spinning, but tinkering uncovers what we otherwise may be overlooking, without even knowing it.

Published on: Jun 14, 2016