Wednesday, October 10, 2007

BIF-3: Dan Heath - Think Inside the Box

Take a sheet of paper and write down everything you can think of that's white. You have 15 seconds, go. Done? Good, now take 15 seconds and write down everything that is or could be in your refrigerator that's white. Finished? Raise your hand if had better luck with the second list.

Dan Heath, who co-authored the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die with his brother Chip, started his talk at BIF-3 this afternoon by asking the audience to complete the exercise I described above. A good number (perhaps nearly half) of audience members were able to name more white things the second time around. But that's an odd outcome, said Heath, because there are more white things that exist in the universe than in your refrigerator. The constraint, however, helped focus your thinking and made the task of identifying objects easier because of the stricter perameters.

We've all heard the term "thinking outside of the box," Heath told the audience. But thinking out of the box isn't really as great as it sounds. As his exercise demonstrated, it can make things harder. "We don't need to think outside the box, we don't need to escape it, what we need to do is find the right box and get in it," said Heath.

Improv actors, said Heath, have long utilized the benefits of inside the box thinking. Improvisation needs a clear catalyst, something to motivate the action, and for that reason improv actors are trained to be very specific with their dialogue. They don't say, "what's the matter?" they say, "are you still angry about that time I threw your necklace in the toilet?" The added constraints help them to jump into the scene and continue to be creative and riff off the idea.

Inside the box thinking is found all around business in the form of what Heath called a "high concept pitch." Example he gave are Jaws in space = Alien, Die Hard on a bus = Speed, and Blockbuster by mail = Netflix. These pitches are boxes that inform creative decisions down the line. For example, if you were the set designer for the movie Alien and needed to design a spaceship, looking at the type of thing that had already been done, you'd probably end up with something clean and futuristic like the sets seen on Star Trek. But since the pitch is "Jaws in space," that design aesthetic won't work. Jaws is gritty, frantic, and sweaty, which changes your perception.

The box can inform many decisions taking place throughout an organization. The concreteness and specificity of constraints aide in decision making, and the box can be a guide to thinking, an inspiration to thinking. But you have to find the right box, said Heath, who told a story about pitching one of his earlier businesses to venture capitalists and failing because he was stuck in the wrong box. He was pitching his product (online textbooks) as a product rather than pitching it as an investment, and not getting any bites from VCs as a result. In that case, being stuck in the wrong box was detrimental.

"The idea that we need to think out of the box is wrong," concluded Heath, "instead we should go box shopping. We need to try on as many boxes as possible."

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