Check out this clever interpretation of Inside the Box, now appearing in Spirit Magazine, the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines.
When you use Subtraction, you don’t always have to eliminate the component. There is also what we call “Partial Subtraction.” It is a valid technique as long as the product or service that remains delivers a new benefit. To deploy Partial Subtraction, you pick a component and then eliminate a specific feature of that component. Consider the case of Twitter, a microblogging application used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. By simply restricting each tweet to 140 characters, Twitter has become a vast digital conversation about what individuals around the globe are thinking and doing. A Partial Subtraction of the traditional blog down to 140 characters dramatically increased the volume of and participation in this Internet phenomenon. How did it happen?
Twitter founders Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey, and others knew that the concept was right and that they had a potential hit on their hands. Their intent was to create a service that allowed people to send text messages to many friends at one time. Originally, Twitter was supposed to be only a way for people to easily update their friends on their current status.
But when attempting to build a service with text messaging as its foundation, the Twitter team ran into challenges. First, texts were expensive. On top of that, phone companies imposed a limit on the size of text messages. Any text message of more than 160 characters is automatically split into two messages. So the first thing that the Twitter founders did was to place a limit on the number of characters in a short message service (SMS) text (now called a “tweet”). They Partially Subtracted text messages by reducing the size to 140. That left room for the sender’s user name and the colon in front of the message. In February 2007, Dorsey wrote, “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
He was right. Today more than 100 million users subscribe to Twitter. The Twitter website gets more than 400 million unique visitors each month. It has become the global “listening post” when real-time events such as the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and the Egyptian revolution two months earlier are happening. Glass said in an interview, “You know what’s awesome about this thing? It makes you feel like you’re right with that person. It’s a whole emotional impact. You feel like you’re connected.”
Partial Subtraction can create just as much value as the full Subtraction Technique. Partial Subtractions have another advantage. Sometimes you can convince skeptics to do a Partial Subtraction rather than stripping out a component completely to get them on board.
Next week, Jacob Goldenberg and I will launch our new book, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results. It is the first book to detail the innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking, the subject of this blog for the last six years.
In the twenty years since its inception, SIT has been expanded to cover a wide range of innovation-related phenomena in a variety of contexts. The five techniques within SIT are based on patterns used by mankind for thousands of years to create new solutions. These patterns are embedded into the products and services you see around you almost like the DNA of a product or service. SIT allows you to extract those patterns and reapply to other things.
The five techniques are:
Using these patterns correctly relies on two key ideas. The first idea is that you have to re-train the way your brain thinks about problem solving. Most people think the way to innovate is by starting with a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions. In our method, it is just the opposite. We start with an abstract, conceptual solution and then work back to the problem that it solves. Therefore, we have to learn how to reverse the usual way our brain works in innovation.
This process is called “Function Follows Form,” first reported in 1992 by psychologist Ronald Finke. He recognized that there are two directions of thinking: from the problem-to-the-solution and from the solution-to-the-problem. Finke discovered people are actually better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem).
The second key idea to using patterns is the starting point. It is an idea called The Closed World. We tend to be most surprised with those ideas “right under noses,” that are connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. This is counterintuitive because most people think you need to get way outside their current domain to be innovative. Methods like brainstorming and SCAMPER use random stimulus to push you “outside the box” for new and inventive ideas. Just the opposite is true. The most surprising ideas (“Gee, I never would have thought of that!”) are right nearby.
We have a nickname for The Closed World…we call it Inside the Box.
The Subtraction tool works by removing elements generally considered essential to the situation. The tool can be used in any marketing communications medium (television, print, and so on). The tool works by drawing your attention to the missing component. As a result, the ad is more memorable.
Subtraction is one of eight patterns embedded in most innovative commercials. Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues describe these simple, well-defined design structures in their book, "Cracking the Ad Code," and provide a step-by-step approach to using them. The tools are:
5. Extreme Consequence
6. Absurd Alternative
8. Extreme Effort
Here is an example from the French multinational, Saint Gobain, a manufacturer of construction, materials, and packaging products. To highlight the superiority of one of its product lines, it released a series of commercials including this one:
What makes this example more interesting is the “fusion” of the message and product. The glass is so superior that it seems “subtracted” from the situation. Only until we see the surprising fog on the glass do we realize the message. The commercial not only has this nice element of humor, but it also has a sense of simplicity and “ideality” – the solution appears only when needed.
To use the Subtraction tool, make a list of the components of the situation. Remove what seems to be an essential one. Imagine telling the story without this component and test how strongly the viewer’s mind will interpret the situation with the component. Make the message, brand, and missing element fuse together into one memorable visual experience.
Systematic Inventive Thinking is not only for inventing new products and services. You can apply it to a variety of functions and processes. SIT is based on the idea that mankind has used distinct patterns when creating new solutions or innovations. These patterns are embedded into the products and services you see around you. The SIT method structures your thinking and channels your ideation to take advantage of these patterns by re-applying them to something else.
Consider the human resources function of an organization. Here are suggestions of which SIT technique to apply in a variety of HR activities:
For more insights about using the SIT method, visit Inside the Box.
Perhaps harder than branding is re-branding. Once the market associates your brand with a specific promise, it is difficult to get people to shift over to a newer or more updated meaning. This is especially true for brands that have been around a long time. Take the brand of Canada, for example. It adopted the instantly-recognizable Maple Leaf as its national flag in 1965 over contending choices such the one shown here. Now Canada is re-positioning the brand to update its global image. The new campaign, "Know Canada," makes clever use of the S.I.T. advertising tool called Subtraction.
The tool is one of eight patterns embedded in most innovative commercials. Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues describe these simple, well-defined design structures in their book, "Cracking the Ad Code," and provide a step-by-step approach to using them.
From PSFK: "Bruce Mau Design partnered with Studio 360 to redesign the Canadian brand that is more fitting for the modern world. A country that is more known for its maple syrup, and freezing cold weather, The ‘Know Canada’ campaign depicts the country as a place that’s more vibrant, innovative, refreshing, and a leader in global issues. The idea is simple, and uses the two red rectangles of the Canadian flat as almost like bold quotation marks. Icons like well-known celebrities, scenic views, famous political figures, and even peanut butter, are highlighted in the middle of the two red posts. The rebranding campaign can be rolled out as print posters, billboards, mobile apps, and even passport stamps and beer jugs."
The iconic red maple leaf in the middle has been subtracted. Subtracting out a familiar part of a product stirs our minds and activates the Structural Fixedness in all of us. Structural fixedness (similar to Functional Fixedness) is the tendency of the mind to see things as an organized whole (a gestalt). We have trouble reconciling when something obvious is missing.
The use of the Subtraction technique works well here because the campaign replaces the maple leaf with other symbols of Canada to make the mind create the linkage. Take a look:
According the Center for the Future of Museums, many non-profit museums in this country are struggling from a broken economic model. Attendance and memberships are declining as consumers are given more choices of how to spend their time. To attract more, museums need to have good storytelling, stagecraft, showmanship, great imagery, and great sound. They need to tap deep passions and emotions to create "product" that is meaningful to audiences. Otherwise, many museums will shut down.
For this month's LAB, let's apply the innovation method, S.I.T, to a museum. Students from my Innovation Tools course at the University of Cincinnati created new concepts for a local museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The students portrayed the concepts in a Dream Catalog as a way to visually tell the story. You can download the entire catalog here.
Cardboard boxes are one of the most widely used forms of packaging in the world. 90% of all products are shipped or displayed in corrugated packaging at some point in their lifecycle. It's a $57 billion dollar industry globally, but it is not growing. Could it be a lack of innovation?
For this month's LAB, we will apply the corporate innovation method, SIT, to the corrugated box to see what potential innovations could fuel industry growth. But first, a bit of history from Wikipedia:
Corrugated (also called pleated) paper was patented in England in 1856, and used as a liner for tall hats, but corrugated boxboard was not patented and used as a shipping material until December 20, 1871. The patent was issued to Albert Jones of New York City for single-sided (single-face) corrugated board. Jones used the corrugated board for wrapping bottles and glass lantern chimneys. The first machine for producing large quantities of corrugated board was built in 1874 by G. Smyth, and in the same year Oliver Long improved upon Jones' design by inventing corrugated board with liner sheets on both sides, thereby inventing corrugated board as it came to be known in modern times.
"Hewlett-Packard says it's combining its printer and PC divisions partially because the move will drive "innovation across personal computing and printing." Oh really? Color me decidedly skeptical on that claim, which was touted in the company's announcement today. My mental block: What exactly are the touch points between a printer and a PC, and where does the innovation lie? HP does have printing innovation. Its inkjet technology can be used for drug delivery, for instance. However, unless your PC is delivering doses of pharmaceuticals to you, it's a stretch to see the connection."
For this month's LAB, lets put the S.I.T. method to the challenge. Imagine being part of this newly-combined HP organization. Here is how you might apply each of the five techniques of Systematic Inventive Thinking. The key is to leverage each technique in a way that forces non-obvious connections between the two units, laptop and printer. These configurations become "virtual products." We use Function-Follows-Form to work backwards to problems they solve or benefits they deliver.
Twitter continues to evolve with some 220 million users tweeting collectively 250 million times a day. It is a vast social network that has become the world's "listening post" for events happening everywhere. Major news organizations rely on Twitter to give early warning to breaking stories.
For this month's LAB, we will apply all five techniques of Systematic Inventive Thinking to Twitter. Our goal will be to create new features and innovations with the main Twitter platform as well as to create completely new applications related to Twitter. Many "apps" tied to Twitter already exist, and you can find a thorough inventory here.
This is not the first time we have applied SIT to Twitter. See my March 2009 post about using the innovation method on how to monetize Twitter. Since then, not much has changed in their business model.
We apply each of the five templates of S.I.T. one at a time to create new configurations. We work backwards to identify potential benefits or new markets with that configuration. In each example below, I apply a template and then try identify whether an app already exists. This is a way to check the validity of the templates to create new value:
This month's LAB features a former student of mine, Ryan Rosensweig. Ryan is the first business-design hybrid from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. He earned his master’s degree in design after completing his bachelor’s degree in marketing, sustainable urban engineering, and interdisciplinary design innovation. As the graduate assistant for Associate Dean Craig M. Vogel, of DAAP’s Center for Design Research and Innovation, Ryan researched educational models for interdisciplinary innovation, the interaction between design methodologies and business strategy.
Take a look at his portfolio here.
I had the pleasure of teaching Ryan how to use Systematic Inventive Thinking when he attended my Innovation Tools graduate course. The final exam required students to correctly apply all five techniques of S.I.T. to an item assigned to them randomly.
Let's look at Ryan's final exam - innovating a couch!
2. MULTIPLICATION: Making a copy of a component but changing it in some way
4. DIVISION: Dividing a product or component either physically, functionally, or preserving (maintaining characteristics of the whole)
5. ATTRIBUTE DEPENDENCY: Creating (or breaking) dependencies between two internal attributes or an internal and external attribute.
Netflix needs urgent change to stop the bleeding and rebuild its business model. It is running out of cash and losing support from customers and shareholders. Management must re-establish its credibility with bold moves. Here is a series of steps and techniques to do that.
1. Reframing: Use the Subtraction Tool to reframe and see new possibilities. Make a list of the major components of the company (patents, products, brand, employees, customers, network, etc.). Now imagine Netflix will merge with a company from another industry. Create a phrase something like this: "Netflix cannot stream movies to customers, but it has all the other components. What company has the ideal set of products that would best fit the remaining resources of Netflix?" For example, would a company in the retail sector have products that would find new growth within the Netflix enterprise? Companies like Path Intelligence might be a good candidate. Perhaps Netflix could merge with a brick and mortar movie theater company like AMC Entertainment and leverage the strengths of each. Perhaps Netflix links up with Research in Motion to leverage its proprietary Blackberry network for streaming data. Use this same approach for all the components, one at a time, to envision new possibilities.
2. Reverse Assumption: This technique helps "break fixedness" about assumptions. List the key business assumptions about Netflix and its industry. For example:
Reverse the assumptions one by one. "Customers stream content to Netflix." Perhaps the new business model is to offer a service allowing customers to stream information to Netflix which is then re-streamed to others. Perhaps Netflix uses its streaming skills to enter the business-to-business market, servicing banks or other companies that need to move digital content in a unique way. Perhaps customers send DVDs to other customers instead of sending it back to Netflix, saving time and money.
Setting prices on new products and services is one of the most challenging roles in marketing. Pricing mistakes are costly, yet it's one of the most tempting tools to use when trying to generate revenues. Fortunately, methods like Value Based Pricing and frameworks like The Big Picture make the job easier.
What if you wanted to explore more innovative ways to set prices? Applying the SIT innovation patterns would create new insights and options. The SIT patterns help break fixedness - the tendency to limit the way we see things to what we know. These patterns are innate to all of us. We just need to "extract" them from within and deploy them in a systematic way.
For this month's LAB, we will apply SIT to pricing. While there are many methods and schools of thought around pricing, the SIT templates should apply to any of them. I would do the following.
Innovation methods are not just for inventing new products. Savvy marketers apply innovation methods to the “big event” – the product launch campaign. Companies spend millions of dollars to get a product off to the right start. The launch of a new product can make or break it.
Some companies excel at this. Memorable campaigns include Apple's launch of the iPhone, Microsoft's launch of Windows 95, and my all time favorite - Tickle Me Elmo - by Fisher Price. But a lot can go wrong with product launch, so marketers need ways to stand out from the crowd. Whether you have a big budget or small one, structured innovation methods take your dollars further and may be the difference between success and failure.
For this month’s LAB, we will demonstrate the use of Systematic Inventive Thinking to this critical aspect of marketing: the product launch.
The method works by applying one of five innovation patterns to components within the product launch process. The pattern morphs the component into something that unrecognizable or ambiguous. We take that "virtual product" and work backwards to uncover potential benefits, a process called "Function Follows Form."
We start by listing the components of the launch:
New research suggests that you are likely to be more creative when you imagine the problem is someone else's instead of your own. Evan Polman and Kyle Emich describe their studies in their April 2011 article that support this conclusion.
In one study, 262 participants were instructed to draw an alien for a story that they would write, or alternatively for a story that someone else would write. When drawing an alien for someone else's story, they produced a more creative alien. In another study, 137 students were instructed to picture either themselves or a stranger stuck in a tower and to think of a way to escape using only a rope that did not reach the ground. Of the students who imagined a stranger in the tower, 66 percent found the solution—divide the rope lengthwise and tie the pieces together—compared with 48 percent of those who pictured themselves in the tower.
For innovation practitioners, teachers, and consultants, this research suggests a new technique to improve innovation output. When using an innovation method or problem solving technique, participants should try to image the problem is not theirs. Instead, they want to mentally simulate the problem belongs to someone else. One way to do this is to have participants imagine they are innovating for a similar issue but in a different industry. As an exercise, have participants apply a technique in this scenario first as a way to activate and expand their creative output. Only then, have them apply the same mental structure to their actual problem.
Here is an example. Imagine you are facilitating a team that makes diagnostic equipment for automobiles. They want to innovate new ways to use the data that is collected by their equipment. You are about to apply the S.I.T. Subtraction Technique (remove an essential component). Normally, you would have the team apply Subtraction by eliminating the vehicle data entirely - a great way to break functional fixedness.
Now, in light of this new research, here is what you might do instead. Tell the team they are in a different industry - medical diagnostics - but that they are not allowed to use any traditional diagnostic tests on their patients (like blood tests, x-rays, vitals, etc). Ask them, "What would you do now to get useful data about your patients?" After a round of ideation, have them re-do the exercise back on their own problem. Mentally imagining the problem to be someone else's first will boost creative output on their own problem.
Polman, E., & Emich, K. J. (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(4), 492-501.
Photo by permission: www.cartoonstock.com
Software runs much of our lives. It runs everyday items like computers, automobiles, banking, telephones, and even kitchen appliances. Software will affect more of our daily routines in the future. According to market researcher DataMonitor, the global software market will grow to $457 billion, an increase of 50.5% since 2008.
The problem with software is you cannot see it. The term was coined originally as a prank to contrast the term, "hardware." Unlike hardware, software is intangible - it cannot be touched. So how do you innovate software especially with a corporate innovation method like S.I.T.? This method uses the components of the product or service as the starting point. Companies sometimes struggle creating new applications because software seems too abstract.
The secret to using S.I.T. on software is this. Don't innovate the software code; rather, use the innovation method on what the software does. Apply the method to the products and processes that the software affects. This will create new-to-the-world innovations. Then, write the software code that implements these new applications.
Corporate training is a $60 billion dollar industry and growing as the economy recovers. As with any industry, significant changes are occurring. Companies spend less on fixed internal resources and are outsourcing more. Learners are changing in the way they learn, perhaps due to the generational shift. And of course, technology has made the social side of learning more available and effective. Training executives, those who manage company training resources and programs, must continue to innovate to address these changes to stay relevant.
For this month's LAB, we will apply the corporate innovation method, S.I.T., to a training program. Our goal is to find new-to-the-world concepts that improve a company's training efforts. The method works by applying one of five innovation patterns to components within the training environment. The pattern has the effect of morphing the component into something that seems unrecognizable or ambiguous. We take that "virtual product" and work backwards to uncover potential benefits or markets served, a process called "Function Follows Form."
Begin by listing the major components of a corporate training program:
Here are five ideas, each using one of the five S.I.T. innovation patterns:
In 1817, Sir William Cubitt innovated the treadmill as a method of reforming prison convicts who got out of line. Today, that "torture" continues. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, fifty million Americans use a treadmill. Sales of treadmills are $1 billion annually of the total $4 billion fitness equipment industry. For this month's LAB, we will use the corporate innovation method, S.I.T., to create new-to-the-world concepts for the ubiquitous treadmill.
S.I.T. works by taking one of five patterns (subtraction, task unification, division, multiplication, and attribute dependency) and applying it to an existing product or service. This morphs it into a "virtual product," which is an abstract, ambiguous notion with no clear purpose. We then work backwards (Function Follows Form) to find new and useful benefits or markets for the virtual product.
Here are four innovations created by students at the University of Cincinnati as part of the innovation tools course. They articulated these ideas in a dream catalog, a hypothetical, futuristic catalog that merges marketing insight with innovative design. You can download it here.
1. Extreme Runner: The Extreme Runner provides the ultimate workout for the athlete or experienced runner who loves a challenge. This special treadmill can provide an intense and unique training session or it can be used for extreme competitions.
From metal to billboards, Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka Vhils is regarded for his work across a variety of mediums. However, his “Scratching the Surface” style (which we first noticed here) is particularly remarkable. Using decrepit city walls as his canvas, the artist carved faces from the concrete, unmasking the beauty inherent to even the most neglected spaces.
To use Subtraction, start by listing the components of the situation, product, service, process, etc. (The method works with just about anything that can be conceptualized into components). In this case, the innovator (artist) would create a list like this:
The next step is to subtract a component, preferably something that seems to be essential to the original item. In this case, removing the paint creates our "virtual product" - an abstract, ambiguous configuration that results from applying one of the five S.I.T. patterns. Then we imagine the benefits, potential customers, and needs addressed by the virtual product.
The Subtraction tool is a great starting point for innovation sessions because it helps confront the fixedness we all have about the world around us. A painting without paint certainly fits that description.
To extend the idea, try using the other patterns. For example, Task Unification assigns an additional job to an existing resource. To use Task Unification, list both the internal and external components within the Closed World (an imaginary space and time around the situation). Then select a component randomly and give it a “job” related to your paining. In the works by Vihils, for example, we might take a component of the building and use it as a part of the facial features. Or, we might give people on the street the additional “job” of adding details to the picture.
To use Attribute Dependency, we imagine creating a correlation between internal attributes of the painting with external attributes of the environment around the painting. Simply said, as one thing changes, another thing changes. For example, when it rains, imagine how the Vihils painting might change. Perhaps it changes color, or shape, or theme. Perhaps the change is related to moisture such as wet tears flowing from the subject's eyes. It is these additional innovations, especially ones that draw from the Closed World, that create that extra element of surprise - "Gee, I never would have thought of that!"
Companies that struggle with innovation often make up for it by adding features to existing products. They succumb to "feature creep" - the gradual and continuous addition of features and functions though nothing is truly new. While it may look improved, the added features make your product more complex, difficult to use, and more costly to produce. Over time, your core customers abandon you.
Here is an example - the Numi toilet by Kohler. At $6400, it is promoted as the top-of-the-line toilet with lots of high-tech bells and whistles:
Instead of adding features, companies can become more innovative by subtracting features. Here is an example of the Subtraction template of the S.I.T. innovation method. Kimberly-Clarke Corporation, a global producer of paper-based products, launched their new Scott Natural Tube-Free toilet paper. Just as the name asserts, the rolls come without the cardboard tubes while still being able to fit on the average toilet paper holder.
“The idea has been around for quite some time,” said Doug Daniels, brand manger for Scott brand. “The tube doesn’t really serve any consumer purpose. But we’ve had a breakthrough in our technology that’s finally allowed us to do this.” For now, the process of taking out the tube remains a mystery, as Kimberly-Clarke won’t reveal its ground-breaking technology. Daniels says they’re keeping tight-lipped, since they might use the process for future products. But more importantly, he maintains that no cardboard tube means every single piece of toilet paper will be usable, without those last few sheets getting stuck to the roll.
Kimberly-Clarke estimates that the U.S. alone disposes of 17 billion cardboard tubes from bathroom tissue, equating to 160 million pounds of waste. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly the weight of 250 Boeing 747s and enough tubes to circle the earth’s equator 40 times. Daniels says that this marriage of consumer and ecological advantages will pave the way for the success of the tubeless initiative."