Boost Your Capacity for New Ideas with the Idea Box

Within a set of playing cards, there are a vast number of combinations.  Some combinations are good and others can be useless.

No matter the game, the more combinations you create, the greater your likelihood of getting a winning hand. That is the essential principal behind the Idea Box, according to creativity expert Michael Michalko covered in his popular ThinkerToys.

According to Michalko, the Idea Box is a way of automatically combining the parameters of a challenge into new ideas (parameters mean characteristic, factor, variable or aspect).

A person generating ideas chooses the number and nature of the parameters. What’s important is to generate parameters and then list variations for each parameter. You can think of parameters as card suits (hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds), and the different variations of cards within each suit.

By coming up with different combinations of the parameters, you create new ideas.

Here is how Michalko’s Idea Box works:

  1. Specify your challenge.
  2. Select parameters of your challenge — To determine what parameter is important to add, ask yourself, “Would the challenge still exist without the parameter I’m considering adding to the box”?
  3. List variations –– Below each parameter, list as many variations as you wish for that parameter. The number of parameters and variations will determine the box’s complexity. Generally, it is easier to find new ideas within a simple framework than a complex one. For instance, a box with 10 parameters, each of which has 10 variables, produces 10 billion potential combinations.
  4. Try different combinations –– When the box is finished, make random runs through the parameters and variations, selecting one or more from each column; and then combining them into entirely new forms. If you are working with a box that contains 10 or more parameters, you may find it helpful to randomly examine the entire box and then gradually restrict yourself to portions that appear particularly faithful. It’s like hunting for stars in a box.

Here is how it works in practice:

  • Situation: A Marketing Director for a laundry hamper company needs to produce laundry hampers in a mature market where he needs the design to capture the customer’s imagination. His challenge: “In what ways might he improve the design of laundry hampers”?
  • Description: He analyzes laundry hampers and lists their basic parameters. He decides to work with the parameters of material, shape, finish and position.

His box looks like this:

Laundry Hamper Ideas
Material Shape Finish Position
Wicker Square Natural Sits on floor
Plastic Cylindrical Painted On ceiling
Paper Rectangle Clear On wall
Metal Hexagonal Luminous Basement chute
Net material Cube Neon On Door

Idea search: He randomly choses one or more variations and connects them to create new possibilities. These may trigger new ideas or potential solutions (see bold above).

The idea: Using the random combination of net material, cylindrical, painted and positioned on the door; the marketing director creates a laundry hamper fashioned into a basketball net that hung on a door.  Kids could then play basketball with dirty laundry as they fill up the hamper. When it is full, a tug on a drawstring releases the clothes.

Kevin Donnellon


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