“Think outside the box” is a phrase commonly used to encourage creativity. However, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints”, Jeff is referring to ‘thinking inside a box of constraints’. Similarly, when Marissa Mayer, VP of search products from Google, talks about their latest mantra, “scarcity brings clarity”, she is talking about working within a set of constraints. When Ratan Tata kick-started Nano project it was clear that the creativity has to happen within the stringent price tag of Rs. 1 Lakh.
Few organizations deny the importance of “constrained creativity” as a useful approach. However, very few execute it systematically. That is why, ever since I read about Prof. C. K. Prahalad’s “Innovation sandbox” approach, I got hooked onto the metaphor. This approach is called an innovation “sandbox” because it involves fairly complex, free-form exploration and even playful experimentation (the sand, with its flowing, shifting boundaries) within fixed specified constraints (the walls, straight and rigid, that box in the sand). I wrote about it last year in the article: Building innovation sandboxes.
The question that I find interesting is as follows:
Can innovation sandbox be used as a tool for systematic innovation for any business?
In the past year or so, I have been experimenting with this tool successfully both with my clients as well as in my own business. I believe it can be used (a) as a lens to analyze innovation projects and (b) as a tool for designing strategic experiments. How do I start designing a sandbox? I would start with one of the three types of constraints: (1) Unmet customer need (2) Core asset – such as a technology or a competency (3) a business model. Put that as a wall of the sandbox and slowly build other walls. Now, revisit the constraints after each experiment and see if there is a need to change any of the constraints. Let’s see an example how it works.
Before Paul Buchheit’s AdSense experiment (see How AdSense almost got killed, AdSense story take-2), Gmail project sandbox had 3 primary constraints: (1) Unmet customer need: having an online email application with an ease of search, (2) Core asset: search engine (3) Business model: fixed free space plus revenue on additional space. After the AdSense experiment, the third constraint (business model) got changed to “Unlimited free space + revenue from advertisements”.
I presented a paper “Dynamic innovation sandbox: an approach for strategic innovation” in Strategic Management Forum 2009 conference held in IIM Bangalore this week (27-29 May). The audience was primarily strategy researchers from Indian management schools and they gave good inputs. I am especially thankful to Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan of IIMB for the discussions on systematic experimentation and Prof. C. K. Prahalad for his inputs on this paper.