Serious creativity 2*: INSIDE or OUTSIDE the BOX?

Boxing for ideas

As marketers, creativity needs to be second nature to us. But how do we boost our creativity? In this series of blogs, I want to share my experience and learnings that I personally apply on a daily basis. Like many people, when we are struggling for ideas we force ourselves to get out of the box. As explained in my blog “serious creativity 1: Learn to Escape”, the need to untangle ourselves from our deeply ingrained patterns of thinking is the OUTSIDE-the-BOX part. In this second blog, I will explain some brainstorming techniques that are key to bridging the gap between the “IN” and the “OUT”.


Maybe we should go deeper INSIDE our BOX to find the real solutions, as we tend to be most surprised by the ideas that are “right under our noses” and are in some way connected to our current reality or view of the world. This counter‑intuitive phenomenon is explained very clearly in Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg’s book (

Understanding the principle is one thing, but HOW do you identify the new ideas. More often than not, a wild and uncontrolled brainstorm on some flip charts will not lead to the breakthrough we are looking for. There are many creative techniques (a great overview is given by Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven:; the “Lotus Blossum” and “Dream your Path” have proven themselves to be valuable techniques.

The Lotus Blossom technique

When working in a technical and analytical organization, this technique is a more than suitable tool for initiating and structuring a series of brainstorm rounds. At first glance, it doesn’t feel like a very creative outside-the-box approach, as the process is very structured and even the first round of ideation might reveal some obvious angles. In practice, it is a very efficient method for ensuring a rich exploration of ideas and solutions, as the teams are forced to deepen the possible ideas inside their box in several rounds. The ideas generated are usually very tangible and closely related to the possibilities that are within reach. At the same time, they are mind-opening as they seem so logical. In many instances, people exclaimed “why did not we think of this before!” when using this technique.

The scheme below illustrates a total of nine individual brainstorms. The way I have used it is as follows:

It starts in the center, see letter I; you enter your challenge here. Assuming you work with a team of up to 10 people, in the first round, all people freely carry out an individual brain dump of ideas (by means of Post-its; one idea per Post-it!). Once the full list of ideas has been collected, the next step is group clustering under one denominator. These eight groups are centered around the I (the A to H) and each form a new seed for a new brainstorm. This is displayed in the image above. Below I have set out a virtual example of the outcome of this clustering.

In the next round, conduct a brainstorm for each letter (use association techniques to generate more ideas; see “serious creativity 1: Learn to Escape”). This will allow you to generate a rich pallet of ideas inside your box. Clustering and selection based on predefined criteria will help to generate a top 5 or 10.


Ronald Finke discovered that people are actually better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem). It is so difficult for us to imagine what should come next from where we stand. It seems much easier to look back and imagine what has happened. This is why there are not too many good trend watchers that are able to translate trends into a picture of the future.

This same principle limits our creativity when we want to ideate which steps need to be taken to reach a solution or end point. The discussions and solutions are richer and more imaginative if we start with the end in mind and ideate backwards! I have used this in strategy workshops, but also in business model workshops and product innovation workshops. The formulation of the starting point was always “let’s envisage 2025 (a point in the future), when we successfully introduced our new product (or strategy); let’s look back and define what has happened over time? Let us brainstorm on the most important steps that took were made”. When you do this with several teams, you can get a visual timeline with dreamt-up steps!

Inside the box outside your comfort zone

Both Lotus Blossom and Dream Your Steps are helpful techniques for a team to get outside the box of ideas. Understanding the concepts is one thing, but effectively using them with your team also requires an effective process and a stimulating environment. Is the aim of all this to encourage the team to get into their comfort zone, or take them out of it? I will discuss this in the last blog on serious creativity.

* this is the second blog in a series of three on serious creativity.