A simple tool for creating ‘out of the box’ ideas

Ken Hudson

Ken Hudson
Dr Ken Hudson is a former marketing director (Amex) and has a PhD in organisational creativity. He is also the inventor of creative thinking tool, Blitz (www.letsblitz.com)

Marketing and product managers often say they need a range of ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas to develop new products and to boost their brand or business.

But how do you create an out of the box idea? Brainstorming for all its popularity rarely produces such an idea. Nor does mind-mapping or other ideation tools. Over a number of years working with marketing teams I developed a tool that any individual or group can use and almost guarantees you will be able to develop big, new ideas at will. In fact, in all my ideation suggestions it is my ‘go to’ starting tool.

It is called the ‘mindset box’ tool.

My insight is this: to generate out-of-the-box ideas you need to know what the box is. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.

In my language the ‘box’ is your individual and collective mindset. If you can make this mindset explicit then you can stretch or overturn these boundaries. If you do not, you are forever trapped by your mindset and no amount of creative thinking will enable you to break free.

The starting point is to design the mindset box. This consists of making the assumptions, conventions, expectations and experiences of the group or team explicit.

Remember, there is no right or wrong at this stage you are just putting on the table what you and others believe or assume.

For example, a few years ago I worked with the leaders of the number three garbage bag brand in the market. Their brand was under pressure from two larger competitors with bigger budgets and retail support.

‘A’ stands for assumptions and beliefs

In this case one of their key assumptions or beliefs about garbage bags was that it was a low-interest, low-involvement category.

‘C’ stands for conventions

These are the rules of the game that all the brands or players seem to follow. One of the conventions of garbage bags is that it is made of plastic and it is green in colour.

‘E’ stand for experience

Our mutual experiences with garbage bags – in this example I reminded the ideation team of what it was like to put out the garbage. What if it breaks? How might an 80-year-old female living by herself put out the garbage?

The second ‘E’ stands for expectations

What does a user, consumer, customer or retailer expect of this product?

With garbage bags the group had to admit that the retailers expectations for example was very low – perhaps a price promotion from time to time or a ‘two for the price of one’ offer.

 

For most groups and teams that I work with this step is a revelation. For the first time all the assumptions, beliefs, conventions and expectations are explicit. I remember one new packaged goods marketing director, for example, trying to understand why there was such a reluctance to increase pricing. It seems that there was a widespread belief among the group that a certain product had to be priced under $10. When they unpacked this belief it was made some 10 years earlier by another leader and had been passed down as some sort of unstated truth.

But this is the great beauty of the mindset box tool. It helps everyone to transport what is in their head down on a piece of paper for all to see in a safe environment. The other big advantage is that it separates what we know (ie. a fact) from what we believe.

The third step in using the mindset box tool is to try and challenge, stretch or overturn all or some of the As, Cs, Es and Es.

In the garbage bag example, we tried to overturn the idea that garbage bags are a low-interest, low-involvement category. You only have to have a full garbage bag split and spill all over you to realise that garbage bags could be quite engaging. With this in mind I challenged the group to make garbage bags the most exciting product in the world.

This creative challenge eventually led to the development of the deodorised garbage bag. At last there was a breakthrough in the category that excited both consumers and retailers alike.

We also focused on the limitation that garbage bags are only used for garbage (a key assumption). Yet we knew that garbage bags could have multiple uses (just go to an early morning, winter fun run and you see what I mean). Challenging this assumption opened up an entire range of ideas around house storage bags, home moving bags, kids overnight bags etc.

What about garbage bags on wheels as a new idea to make the consumer experience easier and simpler. Or a kid’s version or a bright purple garbage bag? The ideas are endless.

The last step in using this tool is to evaluate all these ideas and develop a short list.

Suddenly the marketing team of the garbage bag brand had a rich array of potentially breakthrough product ideas. The important point is that the garbage bag had not changed but what had changed was how this product was perceived.

The key lesson?

If you want to create an out-of-the-box idea you need to make your mindset box explicit otherwise you are doomed to create new ideas that can only live within the boundaries of your mindset.

The good news is that most of these limitations are not permanent and can be stretched and overturned. The mindset box tool is easily learned and can be applied to almost any situation.

Sometimes the breakthrough ideas are not found in the marketplace but in opening up the limitations of your imagination.

 

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