Saturday, December 5, 2015

How to think outside the box

Words used in speech writing matter. They can put you and your audience in a box and bias how you and they think about creatively solving problems. Pages 83 to 89 in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review have a very interesting article by Tony McCaffrey and Jim Pearson titled Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It - how to overcome “functional fixedness” and other biases that get in the way of creativity. You can read it at their web site. (It begins with a novel way that all the passengers on the Titanic could have been saved despite a shortage of lifeboats).

Arby’s is a classic example of fixedness. In 2012 that fast food company finally realized that instead of just thinly-sliced roast beef sandwiches on buns their restaurants also could make and sell roast turkey sandwiches. It only took them 48 years.

 McCaffrey and Pearson talk about changing how you describe an object by asking two questions:

“1]  Can it be broken down further?


2]  Does our description imply a particular use?”

If either answer is yes, then you keep breaking them down and put the results on a simple tree, as is shown above for a particular candle. A wick can be described as a string, so it can instead be used to tie things together.

There are other ways to describe candles. As shown above, some even have a low-melting point metal core wire (perhaps lead) inside the wick. But, if you view a candle as a scent delivery system, you might replace the wick with a warmer and end up with a business like Scentsy.  

 My father told me three stories about thinking outside the box. Two were from back in the early 1950s when he was a professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee. He was part of running their graduate program. Their correspondence was being typed on an old, worn out manual typewriter. It made a very poor first impression on potential students and professors. Dad asked the university purchasing agent about getting an IBM Executive electric typewriter with proportional spacing. The answer was a firm no. If Chemical Engineering got a new one, than the other engineering departments would want one too, and then so would Agriculture, etc. What if someone donated a typewriter to the Chemical Engineering department? It would be just fine. That’s what Dad’s consulting practice did. Problem solved.      

Oak Ridge National Laboratory had built an aqueous homogeneous nuclear reactor. Dad and his co-workers were asked to research fluid flow inside that spherical core cavity which had pipes entering and exiting at the poles as shown above. They wanted to build a transparent model out of acrylic plastic with a cavity diameter of eight to ten inches. It could be formed from two hemispheres of Plexiglas sheet stretched over a sphere. But where can you buy an inexpensive but precisely made sphere? Small spheres can be bought as replacement parts for ball bearings. What about bigger balls? Well, a bowling ball is an 8.5” diameter sphere. He submitted a purchase order for one without any finger holes. The purchasing agent called him up, and said I know you’re playing a practical joke on me. You’re still upset about me rejecting the typewriter. But I went ahead and ordered you an obviously useless AMF bowling ball. So there!        

A third story was from the late 1950s when he was involved with the design of a facility that had a lot of connected glove boxes (an example of which is shown above). For future changes there usually are are lots of ports with round covers rather than gloves. They had visited some government nuclear facilities, and found them using expensive custom spun stainless-steel covers. Instead Dad designed ports on their boxes to use standard sized stainless-steel cake pans - mass-produced products about a tenth the cost. Dad kept a big yellow McMaster-Carr wholesale hardware catalog in his office so he could easily find  those sorts of mass produced products and components.       

The game box, Arby’s sandwich, and reactor images came from Wikimedia Commons, and the 7205 glovebox came from CDC. 

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