Thinking Outside the Innovation Box

If you want your team to think outside the box, you have to create one for them first. Don’t start an innovation project until you’ve clearly articulated the strategic framework for your team. There are many models out there, here’s one of our favorites.

We hear this a lot when we talk executives looking for their next new product idea, “I want an out-of-the-box idea!”

Our first question is always: “What does the box look like?” and it’s usually met with a blank stare.

It may seem obvious, but it’s impossible to “think outside the box” unless you’ve defined the box.

All too often we find that there is little or no strategic framework for an innovation program and that can be a major inhibitor to success. This is especially true when you’re focused on front end idea generation and concept development.

Without a well-defined Innovation Box, people are free to wander all over the place, generating ideas that are out of alignment with strategic objectives, ignore key consumer insights and end up wasting the company’s time and money. Sure, it feels great to be unrestrained from the shackles of strategy and the gravity of reality, but at some point we need to create products that can be produced and sold at a profit while adding value to our brands.

All great ideas need an inspiration. And your Innovation Box is a framework for inspiration.

The six facets of the Innovation Box

Our standard innovation box has six sides and serves as a template for gathering and analyzing information needed for a successful innovation project. What follows is a typical list of the key data used to create an Innovation Box. We almost always end up customizing the box for each individual client and project by redefining a side and adding or reprioritizing items on each side. When we’re done we have a complete picture of the innovation challenge.

Click to enlarge


  • Base: business objectives

• Sales

• Profitability

• Brand equity

  • Side 1: current product/service

• Features

• Benefits

• Strengths

• Weaknesses

  • Side 2: consumer profile

• Demographics

• Psychographics

• Societal trends

• Latent needs

• Contextual analysis

  • Side 3: market analysis

• Competition

• Distribution

• Category trends

• Economic trends

  • Side 4: capabilities and constraints

• Manufacturing

• Budget

• Human resources

  • Top: brand architecture

• Promise

• Benefits

• Identity

Once the information is gathered and you’ve constructed your box, you now have a framework to systematically “think outside the box.” For example: if a trend that matters to your category is miniaturization, you can set up exercises for your ideation session to generate ideas counter to the trend. Or if your box says your consumer is a 35 year-old female with two kids who lives in a major metro and likes watching cooking shows, what would happen if you came up with ideas that made your product appeal to teenage boys who drink Mountain Dew and play L.A. Noir? By choosing a side and altering or removing the restraints one at a time, you give people permission to break the rules and make it easy for them to do so.

We find this to be a great analogy for seasoned innovators and novices alike as it puts the standard information that’s gathered for almost every good ideation session into a context that everyone is familiar with and understands. It allows you to break through rules with strategic intent because it makes the rules clear and transparent to everyone involved in the project. It also serves as a model for checking back as ideas become concepts, concepts become prototypes and prototypes become products.

When you’re ready to think outside the box, prepare an Innovation Box and you’ll help focus your team on both robust and relevant new product ideas.

About the author:

Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.

  • Paul Sloane

    Great article – before you think outside the box, define your box.