Stop Staring at a Blank Canvas. Instead, Start Innovating like You’re SpaceX.

For most people, the beginning of a design problem is thrilling. It’s full of excitement and anticipation. You get to start with a completely blank canvas, imagining all of the wonderful things to come. The sky’s the limit. There’s just one problem — a world of infinite possibilities is actually pretty bad for creativity. We know, we know; this might sound like sacrilege to some of you. How can you possibly be creative if your wings are clipped? Shouldn’t we try to ‘think outside the box’, not shove ourselves into one? In short, the answer is no.

In my last article, I wrote about why ‘thinking outside the box’ is bad, because it implies you should forget about the constraints of your design problem. These boundaries shouldn’t be ignored; they should be embraced. They act as guardrails, preventing your designs from crashing and burning and instead keeping you on track throughout the creative process.

The best example of an innovative company embracing constraints is SpaceX. After looking over how they were able to do this, I realized that there are actually 3 superpowers that come with embracing constraints: 1) getting off to the races right away, 2) making better decisions, and 3) optimizing your time. If you’re interested in more information on these three superpowers, feel free to head back to my previous article. But if like me, you’re convinced that embracing constraints can help us be more innovative then you’re most likely asking yourself: how do I do that??

Why ‘Think Outside the Box’ Is Bad Advice

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a brainstorming meeting, and you’ve heard someone (usually the boss) say that everyone needs to ‘think outside the box!’ This advice is normally met with nods, yeses, and other signs of approval. And that’s because it seems to make so much sense. If you’re trying to come up with something truly innovative, then of course you shouldn’t be thinking about the problem the same way as everyone else. If you do, you’ll just end up with the same product or service as the competition. And no one wants to be a copycat when they’re trying to be innovative.

Recently this exact brainstorming scenario happened to me – even the part where I found myself nodding in approval. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I got. What exactly does this phrase ‘think outside the box’ mean? And is it actually good advice? In order to figure out this out, let’s first talk about what this phrase even means.

Think Outside the BoxPhoto by Bench Accounting via Unsplash

Q Theory: What Broadway Musicals Teach Us About Creative Collaboration

BroadwayPhoto by Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash

Anyone that’s been fortunate enough to see an authentic Broadway musical can tell you first hand how beautiful they are. It’s the reason why people post pictures of themselves on Instagram at the show, save the playbills afterward, and why, three years after it first debuted, Hamilton still continues to sell out shows minutes after going on sale. It’s truly a magical experience. These shows are somehow able to combine so many different creative components – acting, dancing, singing, music, lighting, costumes, set design, and playwriting – across a whole range of creative individuals into one cohesive story. This magical ability to combine all of these things led Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, to become obsessed over one question: what’s the makeup of the teams that produce the most successful Broadway shows?

Finding Empathy: An Out-of-This-World Guide!

Imagine being stuck in a 1,200 square foot dome for 365 days. Sound like fun? What if that dome also had five other people? (Oh gosh, you better like those people…) And what if the only way you could communicate was through email that took 20 minutes to send? (Cue the terrible memories of dial-up sounds.) And finally, what if that dome was on the side of a volcano?? (This deal is getting worse and worse.) Well, believe it or not, this happened, and it’s one of the most incredible examples of empathy we could find.

Six complete strangers signed up to be part of a NASA-run HI-SEAS experiment to simulate what it would be like to live on Mars. The study was part psychological research, studying how humans would react to such extreme conditions, but also part design research, empathizing to design a better base for the astronauts that actually travel to Mars. While it might sound extreme, it’s really the only option for them. No one is currently living on Mars (that we know of.) So, in order for these designers to empathize with the future astronauts that will live there, they had to simulate exactly what it would be like. It’s also a great example for us. If these people are willing to go through a year of those conditions for the sake of empathy, then, surely we can take the time to find and empathize with our users.

5 Psychological Secrets Every Innovator Should Know

Even in today’s digital age, the cookbook industry is still huge. Major publishing houses hire top-notch designers to work with their bestselling authors. And when you look at the visuals that these designers produce it’s absolutely stunning. Flipping through the books, my eyes and my mouth are always in heaven. So on the surface, it seems like cookbooks are a great example of good design. Big time designers and pretty pictures is a recipe for success right?

Well, if that’s truly the case – that they’re perfect examples of design – then how come every time I go to use one I always find myself frustrated? Even when the recipe is like 5 or 6 steps long I’m lost. What’s going on here? Well, for the longest time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I was looking over my notes from a book that I previously read that I began to understand.

Don’t Have Time to Read the Bestselling Book on Feedback? I gotchu.

No matter what project you’re working on, no matter what role you have, and no matter how long you’ve been doing it, giving and receiving feedback is important. This isn’t really an earth-shattering idea nor does anyone deny that. But despite the fact that everyone claims to know how important feedback is… we never really get taught how to do it and quite frankly we’re often afraid of it. This was the main reason I was so excited to read the book called “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. And my quick feedback on the book is that it doesn’t disappoint.

thanks for the feedback

First, Let’s Meet the Authors.

Douglas and Sheila are both lecturers on Law at Harvard Law School and cofounders of Triad Consulting. They’ve worked with some pretty big time players like the White House, Citigroup, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, & Unilever. So yeah, they’ve got some experience working with big players and getting feedback from important people. They decided to take their experiences and break it down into an easily digestible and comprehensive look at giving and receiving feedback. Here are my 8 takeaways from the book.

Better than Brainstorming – Part 2: 4 MORE Ways to Ideate

better than brainstorming part 2Photo by Alex Iby via Unsplash

We’ve all been in a brainstorming meeting where a few people throw out ideas for the solution to a problem. While this is better than doing nothing, these meetings are tough. Often, it’s hard for us to come us with new ideas on the spot (that don’t suck). Not to fear! This is the second part of our take on some better brainstorming techniques. Part 1 goes over 4 new ways to help you and your team generate new ideas, and this second part has four more (because you can never have enough ways to generate new ideas).

How 4 Industry Leaders Use the Power of Purpose to Innovate

In a previous post we gave you some steps for how to find your organization’s purpose and why having a purpose is scientifically proven to help your team be more innovative. As a follow up we wanted to share some real world examples of these purpose-driven organizations.

Your Organization’s Purpose is Not a Goal

Alright think for a moment about your organization’s purpose. Got it? (And no, those crappy business jargon mission statements don’t count.)  If not, keep thinking for the next few paragraphs…

Swiping Right. Finding Your Dream Job.

Holding HandsPhoto by Brooke Cagle via Unsplash

In some ways, the relationship between you and your job is like a romance. When things first start out, everything’s new and exciting. This energy creates a burst of passion that you’ll find engaging and can help you produce some really innovative work. But as with all relationships, the newness is fleeting, and your honeymoon stage eventually comes to an end. After this initial spark fades, you need to find a way to sustain your passion for the organization you’re a part of. If not, your inspiration will suffer. There’s no quicker way to kill creativity than to be working on some project you couldn’t care less about. And things will only get worse from there. Eventually your apathy will turn into resentment as you think about how much good you could be doing if only you were part of a different organization. Once you reach this point, it’s time for the break up.

Because we all know that breakups suck, you’re probably asking yourself, “How can we avoid this? How can we have a successful relationship with our job so that we can continue being creative?” The answer’s a little complicated.