Problem Solving In The Office: Should We Think Inside The Box?

Problem Solving In The Office: Should We Think Inside The Box?

We’ve written about innovation and efficiency a lot on the blog, always hoping that we can bring useful information to SMEs to help them work smarter and bring in more money.

I’m reading a book that could be useful for businesses that feel they could do with an injection of innovation. It’s called Inside The Box, and it shows you five practical techniques to tackle seemingly intractable problems.

It’s co-written by an academic, Jacob Goldenberg, and a marketing expert, Drew Boyd, who use a system called Systematic Inventive Thinking or SIT.   

The history of SIT began with a Soviet inventor called Genrich Altshuller. While studying thousands and thousands of patents, he started to spot patterns in how these patents solved particular problems.

Altshuller’s insight was that creativity and innovation is based on simple principles.  If you learned these rules and applied them to a problem, you could end up with an elegant solution.   He called his system TRIZ (which is a Russian acronym for some incredibly long words).  SIT was born out TRIZ.

It’s a deep subject, so we’re not going into enormous detail.  But here are some key points from the SIT system:

* Explore the closed world (resist the temptation to look beyond it)

* See how one task could be linked to another for added benefit

* Think about all the component elements and imagine how removing one could lead to an innovative result

The Closed World

This is part of the bedrock of the SIT.

When we brainstorm, we gather a group of people and come up with crazy ideas, perhaps generating increasingly complicated solutions for problems.  But what if we kept things simple?  The closed world concept is all about finding solutions in ‘the world’ of the problem.

Here’s one you can use in the office:  if you accidentally write on a whiteboard with a permanent marker, you can write over your mistake with an dry-erase marker and rub out the text.  If you brainstormed this, someone might suggest getting a sponge and white spirit – things outside of the whiteboard.

Another example is using a jack when your car has a flat tyre.  If you find the nuts on the tyre are too rusty to be turned easily by hand, you can use the jack to push up the tyre wrench itself. A open-world suggestion might be looking for some WD40 and a hammer; perfect if you’re carpenter with tools in the back, not so much if you’re a busy mum picking up the kids from school.

Task Unification

Can you make one thing do two (or more) jobs?  Public transport carrying advertising is an illustration of this.  While it’s commonplace now – it’s almost laughable to think of a bus without an advert on it – at some point it was a new idea.  Some bright spark realised buses were mobile billboards.

Another great example is reCAPTCHA – when you have to type out some blurry letters on a website to prove you’re a person.  The squiggly words presented to the user are actually from old books being digitised.  If a computer can’t figure out what the letters are, the job’s given to a human.

Actually, isn’t a pencil with a rubber on the end also an example of this?  I know pencils grow on trees, but I’m pretty sure people add the rubber. (Or is it the other way around?)


What happens when you remove the essential parts of a product?  I know this sounds crazy, but here’s a crazy example:  take the wheels off a bicycle and you end up with a rudimentary exercise bike.  I’m sure the first company to realise that freewheeled  into a new market.

Think back to the Atkins diet craze, where people wanted protein but no carbs.   One sandwich chain started offering ‘breadless sandwiches’.  It sounds bonkers in retrospect, but I’m sure it helped them sell more and tap into a new market.

(Or taking out the soap from soap powder, leaving only the perfume.  Now you end up with products like Febreze, for when something is clean, but needs to smell like it too.)

Some of these solutions are forehead-smackingly obvious, but also very creative.  While they come from wildly different industries and fields – and the people who came up with them may never have heard of SIT or TRIZ – Altshuller’s principles are evident in each example.

Can you see how powerfully simple the SIT techniques seem?  How could this kind of thinking help you in the office?   Off the top of my head with some task unification, if you’re in charge of bringing drinks and snacks to a board meeting, could you overfill the water jug so that you can top up some thirsty office pot plants on the way?

I admit, it’s a pretty bad example, but I thought of it as I was typing.  But what if you sat down with all five principles and really worked through them?  Instead of having an average brainstorming session and hoping something good came out of it, you could ask people to spend fifteen minutes using SIT beforehand and discuss their nascent ideas in the meeting.

So, the next time you need to do some problem solving in the office, why not think inside the box?

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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…




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