Creative Solutions? They Usually Require You to Think “Inside the Box”

There’s a great little story in Matthew May’s book In Pursuit of Elegance (Why the Best ideas Have Something Missing) about trying to solve the problem faced by communities in Nigeria who depend on market farming for a living.

With no electricity to provide any kind of refrigeration, and with markets often located miles from the isolated villages, they face having to get their crops to those marketplaces as soon as they’re harvested to avoid spoiling.

“Young girls of the family are forced to travel long distances each day…leaving little if any time for school … the entire health, welfare and education of [the] people appeared to be tied to the inability to keep produce fresh.”

But there were strict barriers or boundaries to the problem’s solution. It would have to cost nearly nothing, would have to work without electricity, would need to use readily available materials, employ existing skills, and be acceptable in a conservative Muslim community. “In short, [you] have to think inside a very small box to find a viable solution.”

Blue skies are nice, but we’ve got weather moving in…

I’ll reveal the solution later in this post, but the problem points up something the “blue sky thinkers” often miss. They start by throwing out all constraints, the same constraints that affect every problem we face — constraints of money, resources, time, culture, and location.

“Thinking outside the box” ignores the fact that we live, work and play inside a lot of those boxes. And when we need a solution to a problem – and most of our problems are of the more mundane, daily sort – we rarely find them outside these boxes.

I find that really creative solutions admit the obvious limitations that exist around the problem. In the film version of Apollo 13, where astronauts were stranded in a very small box in space, the most memorable scene for me was when the ground control team dumped a collection of tools, pieces and parts on a table. “This is what they have to work with. Now, solve the problem.” Real creativity starts there, with the boundaries of what exists now, and with what you have to work with.

I think, by nature, we’re problem solvers. In business, what guides those solutions is the need to create value – value for customers, and value for the business.

The constraints are very familiar: price to the client, cost to us; processes required by regulation as against the smooth operation that the customer wants; what seems like ever-shrinking resources, both material and human; and time, time, time. Never enough of that.

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Desert coolers

Real, lasting solutions to such problems come from the creativity needed to work inside those boxes. In our story from Nigeria, the solution to keeping produce cool and fresh was solved by clay pots. Specifically, clay pots inside larger clay jars, with wet cool sand between the two containers.

“[The] pot-in-pot cooler kept contents a dozen degrees cooler than the surrounding air.” writes May. “[E]ggplants stayed fresh for nearly a month instead of three days…a pot cost less than a dollar to make … Today, farmer and traders use the desert coolers to store their produce at home and sell them fresh at a good price to the 100,000 people at the market…income levels have noticeably risen.”

And best of all: “The invention frees young girls to attend school, because they no longer have to worry about traveling far and wide to sell food every day.”

An elegant, creative solution driven by facing up to the “box” that the problem came in.

This was originally published on Steve Laird’s editor & writer blog.


1 Comment on “Creative Solutions? They Usually Require You to Think “Inside the Box”

  1. As a parctitioner of “TRIZ” problem solving I can only comment that this solution relies on two basic TRIZ principles: (1) Nesting, one of the 40 principles that underlie all inventions that have ever been patented and (2) use of existing resources. We often ignore resources that are all around us and are free (gravity, for example0. Another illustration of the application of TRIZ principles in this context is the use of circular water carriers instead of the normal barrells. This allows them to be rolled instead of carried, greatly minimizing the pain and labor of transporting water.

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