The New Normal

Overcoming fixedness: How thinking ‘inside the box’ can drive innovation

Posted May 12, 2016 8:00 AM CDT
By Roya Behnia

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Roya Behnia.

If you are like me, your desk drawer is crammed with random office supplies like half-used notepads, loose paper clips and maybe a lonely Post-it note. I didn’t think much about it until someone sent me this brilliant video highlighting 15 different uses for ordinary binder clips. Suddenly, that single binder clip in my drawer was transformed into one of the most useful organizing tools in my office.

What was so interesting about using binder clips to store ear buds or organize cables? It never occurred to me that a simple clip should be used for anything other than collecting paper. I fell prey to functional fixedness, defined as a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.” Psychologists refer to the “the candle problem” to highlight a tendency not to see a product beyond its stated function. Since binder clips are presented to consumers for one purpose, it’s difficult to look at their component parts and think about other completely different needs that can be met.

Why is being aware of a proneness to functional fixedness important in the New Normal? Because “doing” innovation is hard work and requires that we overcome our own cognitive biases about how the law works or how clients are best served. These biases have been reinforced by how we have been trained to think about risk and how to avoid it at all costs, something I discussed in this piece on getting comfortable with risk.

Rather than fighting these cognitive biases that can limit creativity, two innovation researchers, Drew Boyd of the University of Cincinnati and Jacob Goldenberg of Hebrew University, have found a way to work with them, coining their approach as “inside the box” or “systematic inventive thinking.” Boyd and Goldenberg believe that it is too hard to innovate without some structure or tools that take into account our natural tendencies to get stuck on what we already know or get off track with tangents that have little to add to our product or service. As they wrote in this piece in the Wall Street Journal:

The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn’t follow rules or pattern. Would-be innovators are told to “think outside the box,” “start with a problem and then brainstorm ideas for a solution,” “go wild making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your product or service.”

We advocate a radically different approach: thinking inside the proverbial box, not outside of it. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them. By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particularly creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative—and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.

How does this actually work? Boyd and Goldenberg posit a system that takes a product and then dismantles it into its component parts or elements. Then, they present five methods to change these components in some way to present a potentially new productive use:

  1. Subtraction: removing one or more of the elements (i.e., a Sony Walkman had no recording function);.
  2. Task unification: bringing together unrelated functions (i.e., a Samsonite backpack that both accommodates a heavy computer load and whose straps provide a massaging sensation as the bag gets heavier).
  3. Multiplication: copying and then changing a component (i.e., double-blade razors that shave at different angles, or bifocal lenses).
  4. Division: separating components and then rearranging them (i.e., airline check-in that allows printing a board pass at home).
  5. Attribute dependency: making a component of a product dependent on some change in the environment (i.e., windshield wipers that speed up as it rains).

You can read more about these methods to foster innovation here and here.

The implications of applying systematic inventive thinking to problem solving in the legal profession can be profound. What if we could take a legal process and apply “subtraction” to simplify our reviews or “task unification” to meet two different legal or operational needs? How much easier is it to think “inside the box” in this way?

Our legal team did just this in simplifying our contract process, as discussed in my last post. After being trained in systematic inventive thinking by innovation consultants (a lot of fun, by the way), we decided to look at our contract process. As I described before, we first broke down the process into its component parts and learned that there were 40 different steps to execution—a shock to us all. Because we were focused on simplifying our process, we used “subtraction” to see what would happen if we remove steps in the process that we previously thought were essential. They turned out not to be. Then, we tried our hand at “task unification” to create a new contract process that both streamlined review and provided an easily accessible repository for all contracts and contract terms. Easy win for us and for the company.


Roya Behnia most recently served as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Pall Corporation, based in New York, until September 2015 when it was acquired by Danaher Corporation. Prior to Pall, she was general counsel of a publicly held Internet marketing company in Chicago. She started her legal career at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, where she was a litigation partner.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the founder of Legal OnRamp and now a member of the advisory board of Elevate Services, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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