‘The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas’

Recently I was invited by a group of young PR minds involved in producing interstitials to share my thoughts on how to think creatively.  The challenges in their heads are varied—how to move away from a creative process that no longer works, how to become freer and more inspired and how to think differently or what many call “thinking out of the box.”

What’s out-of-the-box thinking anyway, and why are people always talking about it? The box is a bordered area that allows a more conventional way of handling a problem. It is a belief, a concept, a working hypothesis or a mental model you use to understand what’s happening around you. Thinking out of the box is taking grip of a situation or a challenge in an untraditional way.

For perspective, the origin of the idiom is commonly associated with corporate culture in the mid-20th century. There are anecdotal declarations to the first coining of the phrase, but many trace it back to a peculiar puzzle involving nine dots. As Wise Geek writes, “In the puzzle, nine dots are arranged in a square shape, with three rows of three dots. The puzzler is supposed to find a way to draw four lines that pass through all the dots, without redrawing over any lines. One of the most common solutions to the puzzle is to draw lines that extend beyond the edges of the dot-square; in effect, going ‘outside the box’ created by the dots.”

In their superbly put-together book, Thinking in New Boxes, Luc De Brabandere and Alan Iny allege that more than the concept of “out of the box thinking,” what is more important is how to build new and better boxes: How to breach non-performing ideas and cerebral frameworks and generate new and more effective methods of thinking. “In truth, there is no such thing as outside-the-box thinking. Boxes as mental frames, paradigms, master narratives, theories, assumptions or philosophies are the only way you can understand the complexity of reality. Even if you believe that you’re finally thinking outside the box, all you are doing is stepping into a new one,” the authors explain. You simply can’t run away from boxes, and your propensity to create new, improved boxes is the skill you need to retool.

This push for an innovative thinking process is driven by PR communication realities that are too intricate to be boxed into a simple, limited structure of understanding human experience. “No matter how brilliant a box you can construct, you can’t construct a perfect one. All ideas you can possibly have are flawed and imperfect,” the authors posit.

As such, choosing boxes is an exercise that forever eliminates particular facets of reality from view, shuts out discussion and directs resources into a narrowly delineated and unrestricted guideline. As a practice, you often accept boxes given by your bosses and the experts you work with, believing that acceptance of such boxes and conformity with the demands of the boxes will be rewarded. You likewise accept that thinking out of the box can be uncomfortable, as it brings fear and anxiety of things unfamiliar.

And since a box can provide a comfortable haven of certainty, stepping out of it can be terrifying, knowing that the reality inside a box is much more enjoyable compared to what confronts you in the real, outside world. “It is only by questioning everything, all of your beliefs and assumptions about yourself, your role or your business enterprise and its value proposition that you begin to see the invisible box or boxes that you live in,” the authors state, as they quickly offer a step-by-step process that will get you climbing out of those old boxes and diving into new ones.

Doubting everything is the first step to being creative

Adopt a disbelieving mind-set and discover how to do things differently. Brainstorm and challenge every assumption since true creativity requires continuous skepticism. It is the initial stride to practical creativity. If you manage it well, you can stumble on a successful new box that can change the way you think about your customers, competitors or your own company.

Questioning your current situation can pave the way to creative thinking

Google’s original aspiration, for example, was to build the best search engine ever; arguably the organization achieved that. But to enter a new era of growth, Google leaders needed to view their company another way. Only when the organization challenged its long-held assumption—“We are a search engine company”—could they then come up with the idea—“We want to know everything”—which generated closely associated ventures, such as Google Earth, Google Book Search and Google Labs, along with additional enhancements to their legendary search engine.

Probe the possible

Identify relevant megatrends beyond your industry like demographic and economic developments; within your industry like regulators, customers and competitors; and inside your company like how the business runs and other inclinations that could affect operations. Probing involves research and investigation. Once you become free of your box, you are ready to explore the world in all its multifaceted affluence and to see it in from a new perspective.

To break the rules, you must know what they are

And to know the drill, you need research. It is a basic prerequisite to become a specialist in your interest, which prevents you from falling and failing. Immerse in as much information about the state of the art in whatever area you wish to compete in, and you will be able achieve unassailable creativity. And fully recognize that constantly chasing information, increasing knowledge and honing skills are what matter most.

Divergence brings you to the start of the creative process

It is driven and powered by your investigation. The process should be guided by a noticeably structured inquiry for which you’re trying to generate answers in the light of your exploration. People often fail by jumping straight into this as a first step. You need to doubt and see the sights first, so you can harvest more productive results. The book tells the story of Hindustan Lever Ltd. executives in the 1970s and 1980s who assumed that customers for laundry detergent in India were primarily wealthy individuals willing to pay for Surf. What they didn’t notice was Nirma, a low-cost competitor, which appealed to an increasing segment of lower-income customers who hadn’t used detergent before. The company learned from that lesson, as evidenced by Surf’s phenomenal launch and sustained success in the Philippine market.

Convergence is the phase where you analyze the ideas gathered in the divergence stage

Prioritize the ones put on the table, take a good, hard look at them and select the most useful for your purpose. In the selection process, understand how consumers think, knowing that they have a natural bias toward ideas and concepts that corroborate, as opposed to those that cancel out what they already hold dear. Such biases can interfere with their capacity for fresh thinking. The book shares the classic case of Henry Ford, who notably insisted that the all-black Model T would always remain desirable to consumers. Even as other car manufacturers built new car models and colors, even when his colleagues urged him to consider pursuing new directions, Ford refused to budge. “After years of fantastic innovations that helped bring the automobile to the masses, Ford fell prey to the ‘anchoring bias’ that leads people to make, or fail to make, new decisions by referencing their prior experience,” the authors say.

Structured brainstorming allows you to pose concrete questions that focus people’s thinking in ways that spark fresh ideas

The tome provides this example: What businesses could you invent if you reproduced something children love in an extreme form for adults? This thought has catalyzed creation of more than 25 new product categories, including gourmet jellybeans, rollerblades, sneakers, 20-foot-high sand castles for corporate parties, space tourism, Disney collectibles, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Spider-Man movies, baseball fantasy camps and paintball.

The brainstorming process must be orchestrated to help people work effectively together

It must aim to clarify what constitutes a good idea in your case, select participants who can produce original insights, make social norms work for you, and not to rely solely on one brainstorming session since ideas keep improving over time. To capture all the good ones, consider scheduling a follow-up meeting or two, or gather additional thoughts from individuals after the session.

In an ever-changing environment, no idea is good forever. You will always have to reevaluate. “Even if business is going well, there are two types of moments that every business will have to grapple with at some point—the ‘eureka moments’ and the ‘carumba moments,” the authors declare. A eureka or aha moment is when you come up with a great new idea before everyone else, and you must change your box to fit the new idea, even when things are going well. A carumba moment is when someone else comes up with an amazing idea or a way to sell something cheaply and forces you to change your box. Out-of-the-box or new-box thinking take the lead from Linus Pauling, who said, “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the United Kingdom-based International Public Relations Association, the world’s premier organization for PR professionals around the world. Bong R. Osorio is a communications consultant of ABS-CBN Corp., SkyCable, Dentsu-Aegis Network and government projects, among others, after retiring as vice president and head of the Corporate Communications Division of ABS-CBN.

We are devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations. Please send your questions or comments to [email protected].

Bong R. Osorio

Bong R. Osorio is the communications consultant and spokesman of ABS-CBN Corp.