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Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box

Imagine that we asked you to invent an idea for a new business in the next 20 minutes. The task is so broad and vague that you would probably think you couldn’t do it. We have often seen people give up without really trying when confronted with such an amorphous challenge.

Instead, let us pose a narrower question: What do Rollerblades, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and Spider-Man movies have in common? The answer is they are all based on the same business concept. In each case, a firm has taken something children love and reproduced it in an extreme, more expensive form for adults. The same notion has led to over 25 new product categories, including gourmet jelly beans, baseball fantasy camps, $200 sneakers, 20-foot-high sand castles for corporate parties, paintball, space tourism, and Disney collectibles. Now that you see this, we are confident you could think of how to reproduce something that was emotionally powerful to you as a child in an expensive form for adults. That’s because we have conducted this exercise as a warm-up to our workshops with hundreds of managers, and they have always generated interesting ideas.

What did we just do, and why did it work? In our quest for breakthrough ideas, we didn’t ask you to think outside the box. Nor did we ask you to think more intently inside your usual box. We gave you a new box and asked you to think inside that.

Most managers and professionals are quite capable of thinking effectively inside a box. They live with constraints all the time and automatically explore alternatives, combinations, and permutations within their confined space. We have found that if you systematically constrain the scope of their thinking (but not too much), people are adept at fully exploring the possibilities, and they can regularly generate lots of good ideas—and occasionally some great ones. Setting the right constraints is a matter of asking the right kinds of questions: ones that create boxes that are useful, but different, from the boxes your people currently think in.

Ten years ago, as part of a larger project for McKinsey’s strategy practice, we led a team of consultants who developed such an approach to brainstorming. It involves posing concrete questions and orchestrating the process for answering those questions. Since then we have successfully used this method with more than 150 clients engaged in everything from major product innovations and industry-shaping moves to simple process improvements. Our technique helped a consumer goods company identify an opportunity for a chilled beverage that captured 20% of the market in the first six months after its launch. A print media company used it to come up with ways to triple the firm’s penetration of the Hispanic market. A plastic pipe manufacturer uncovered an immediately exploitable opportunity to reduce costs by 75%. A regional bank came up with a process that more than doubled the sales productivity of the branches involved in the pilot. Even those whose job it is to be creative have benefited from the methodology: The editors of a group of prominent magazines who had been stuck in a rut in their efforts to come up with story angles have begun using the approach to develop fresh new articles for every issue.

Now that it has been road tested, we’d like to share our approach. A good place to begin is to examine what’s wrong with conventional approaches to brainstorming.

Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

Many managers fail to generate a stream of solid ideas because they employ two common techniques: They encourage their people to go wild and think outside the box or they assign them the task of slicing and dicing the old boxes (in the form of existing market and financial data or specially commissioned market research) in new ways.

The problem with the first method is that most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming. Imagine a random product you are trying to improve in a typical facilitated brainstorming session. Outside-the-box possibilities could include making the product bigger or smaller, lighter or heavier, prettier or more rugged (or changing its appearance in any of a hundred ways). Further ideas could involve making the product more expensive or less, or maybe breaking it into parts or bundling it with other products. They could involve changing the product’s functionality, durability, ease of use, or the way it fits with other products. Or its availability, affordability, or repairability. How do you know which dimensions are fruitful to explore? More often than not, the facilitator will say, “There are no bad ideas,” which only compounds the confusion. Without some guidance, people cannot judge whether they should continue in the direction of their first notion or change course altogether. They cannot handle the uncertainty, and they shut down.

The second method—slicing the data in new ways—almost always produces only small to middling insights, for different reasons. The contents of every database are structured to correspond to insights that are already recognized, not ones that aren’t. (Why are sales data often organized by region? Because someone already knows that the contrasts from region to region are meaningful.) Moreover, any insights produced by recrunching publicly available numbers will probably be discovered quickly by competitors’ armies of MBAs, who are most likely using the same techniques and the same data as your people.

Market research suffers from another sort of limitation. Whenever an organization embarks on a journey to come up with a big, new idea, someone inevitably declares, “We should ask the customer, because customers aren’t stupid, you know.” True, customers aren’t stupid, and they can tell you if they perceive your product to be inferior to competitors’ offerings in some particular way. However, they can rarely tell you whether they need or want a product that they have never seen or imagined. Market surveys famously said the ultimate demand for computers was five units. That people didn’t need Xeroxes because they would never need more than three copies of anything and carbon paper could handle it. That cellular phone demand was limited. That the Sony Walkman would be a flop. Market research can be invaluable in getting reactions to an idea once it is fully formed and tangibly demonstrated to the customer. It rarely, however, finds the latent need.

Our approach takes a middle path between the two extremes of boundless speculation and quantitative data analysis. When you ask questions that create new boxes to think inside, you can prevent people from getting lost in the cosmos and give them a basis for making and comparing choices and for knowing whether they’re making progress. But posing the right questions is only half the battle. How you organize and conduct brainstorming sessions also matters enormously. You must redesign your ideation processes so that they remove obstacles that interfere with the flow of ideas—such as most people’s aversion to speaking in groups of more than ten. We’ll talk about the process of structuring an effective brainstorming session in a moment. But first, let’s examine more closely where great questions come from.

Asking the Right Questions

In conducting its research ten years ago, the McKinsey team learned of a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, then a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. In its descriptions of how Nobel laureates and other creative people achieved their breakthroughs, an interesting insight emerged: Once they asked themselves the right question, their ideas flowed rapidly. This revelation prompted us to examine how the most successful companies in recent history had achieved their positions. We looked at two groups: The first were already large companies that became industry-shaping enterprises in a relatively short time. The second grew from garage-based start-ups into firms with more than $1 billion in (profitable) sales in less than six years. In every case, their successes were built on breakthrough ideas that redefined the products and services in their markets.

We found that a number of their innovations sprang from responses to particular questions. But, subsequently, we realized that it didn’t matter whether they had actually asked a question or not. What mattered was whether there was a question that could have uncovered the kind of extraordinary opportunities that CNN, Google, USA Today, eBay, and Amazon identified and exploited.

We then zeroed in on 50 breakthrough ideas from a spectrum of industries and reverse engineered them to find the focused questions that could have led any intelligent manager to the same epiphany. Obviously, some of the questions were specific to their industries. However, we found many that are universally applicable, including those featured in the exhibit “21 Great Questions for Developing New Products.”

21 Great Questions for Developing New Products


One question that can generate insights in any business is, “What is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?” Entrepreneurs who focused on eliminating such hassles gave us Jiffy Lube (on demand, fast turnaround oil changes), CarMax (used cars with warranties purchased in a pleasant environment at reasonable, fixed prices), prepaid cell phones that can be bought off-the-shelf (thus avoiding the 20-minute setup process and the risk of racking up unexpectedly high phone bills), and something as low-tech as single-use packages of real fire logs (for those who have no place to store a cord of wood).

The world is still full of such opportunities. Take gasoline retailing. What’s the biggest “invisible” hassle? Having to go to a gas station. The average car is driven only about 500 hours a year and sits somewhere—often in a large parking lot—for the remaining 95% of the time. What if a small tanker truck could visit that parking lot and fill up any subscriber’s vehicle displaying a “please fill this car” flag? Would it work? Operational issues would have to be overcome, of course. But just ask any motorist pumping gas at a self-service station on a cold, rainy day how he or she likes the idea.

The same questions can, of course, lead to different ideas. Consider the opportunities that different divisions of a bank might generate by pondering the question, “For which subset of users are the procedures associated with our product least suited?” This exercise could prompt the lending department to focus on marginally profitable loans to small businesses for which the paperwork is burdensome to both sides. One possible remedy the bank might offer: industrial pawn shops, which, like their consumer counterparts, would allow a business to secure a loan by parking an asset in exchange, minimizing the need for documentation. The same question could spark the bank’s credit card division to think about which potential customers might not be well represented in the credit-history databases owned by external credit bureaus. This line of questioning could lead to a business initiative aimed at marketing credit cards to immigrants who have good credit histories in their home countries but no credit history in the United States. Similarly, asking, “Who does not use my product for one particular reason?” has already led to the creation of several museums for the blind, where information is delivered through aural, tactile, and olfactory sensations.

The most fertile questions focus the mind on a subset of possibilities that differ markedly from those explored before, guiding people to valuable overlooked corners of the universe of possible improvements. To develop your own list, ask yourself every time you come across a new business idea that you think is really clever, “What question would have caused me to see this opportunity first?” In other words, reverse engineer every great idea or innovation you see. That’s what we did to invent the question about the ice cream, Rollerblades, and Spider-Man that we use in our warm-up exercise. Using this approach, we have built and tested an arsenal of more than 250 questions.

The most fertile questions focus the mind on valuable overlooked corners of the universe of possible improvements.

Should you want to be more systematic about the search for new questions, you can employ a simple logic tree that starts with a high-level question and successively breaks it down into more tightly defined probes. This rigor has proven useful even in unusual settings. For example, imagine you are the editor of a trendy mass-market magazine that covers popular music. Your articles consist mainly of interviews with and profiles of new bands, singers, and occasionally a venerable star. But the formula is getting tired. A simple tool like the exhibit “A Music Magazine’s Logic Tree for Generating Fresh Article Ideas” could assist you in pursuing a much wider range of story angles on the same trends and keep readers engaged.

A Music Magazine’s Logic Tree for Generating Fresh Article Ideas


We have found that the right level of abstraction tends to occur about three to six levels down the tree. If you stop at the first level, the question would be too broad; if you were to continue too far down, the questions would start becoming too specific to generate useful answers. In addition to aiding you in coming up with novel ideas, such trees can also help you see when you are stuck in a rut and are producing conceptually similar ideas. If all your ideas originate from the same few questions, you’ll profit substantially from exploring the other branches of the tree.

Better Orchestrating the Process

The fact is, virtually all brainstorming sessions violate the fundamentals of how human beings actually think and work together. Consider the following all-too-familiar situation.

About 20 people—most of them chosen for political reasons—gather in a room. The leader is either their boss, whose presence makes some people reluctant to offer what may be perceived as a silly idea, or a “creativity moderator,” who neither understands the business nor thinks he should have to. Three pushy people dominate the session with their pet ideas, while the others sit in silence. After the group is instructed to think outside the box, ideas pop up randomly: “Let’s paint it blue!” “We can sell it in Germany.” “How about an upscale version?” “The problem is the sales force.” Since “there are no bad ideas,” preposterous dreams consume much of the time and energy. (“If we could invent a cheap pill that could substitute for gasoline….”) Finally, because everyone knows you cannot force people to come up with good ideas, participants think it’s okay to produce nothing—or to not follow up on anything the workshop did create.

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