Can you learn how to find your own eureka moment?

September 18, 2013, 7:21 PM UTC

Two BCG consultants offer a prescription for innovation in Thinking In New Boxes.

By Craig Giammona

FORTUNE — Jean Paul Sartre was a Marxist, but his existential play No Exit could have easily been about business strategy – at least that’s the suggestion in Alan Iny and Luc de Brabandere’s new book Thinking in New Boxes: Five Essential Steps to Spark the Next Big Idea.

The book begins with an allegory about a Labrador retriever named after the French philosopher. Sartre (the dog) regularly jumps over a fence encircling the farm where he lives so that he can run free in the adjacent woods. Even after the fence is dismantled, Sartre continues to jump up at the spot where it once stood, his assumptions about the world unchanged in the face of a major paradigm shift. Iny and de Brabandere, who work for The Boston Consulting Group, argue that some companies, much like the dog and the characters in No Exit, are boxed in by preconceived, difficult-to-supplant ideas about the world that stifle creativity and prevent innovation.

Rather than recognizing changes in the marketplace and preemptively adapting, companies react within the confines of their existing business paradigms, or just “outside” of it. To Iny and de Brabandere, “thinking outside the box” is an outdated cliché that assumes the primacy of existing models. Innovation, they argue, comes not from consciously looking outside the existing box, but from breaking down the box entirely and creating new ones.

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“Pondering the nature of the box, questioning why it is there in the first place, striving to understand the strategies and constraints of those controlling it— those are your first steps toward liberty,” the authors write. “Doubt is the crucial first step toward creativity and liberation.”

Much of the book describes the authors’ process for “thinking in new boxes,” with chapters dedicated to each of the five steps they push: doubt everything; probe the possible; diverge; converge; and reevaluate relentlessly. A section at the end of the book offers specific instructions on how to organize brainstorming sessions. Yes, in many ways it’s a standard, servicey business guide; some of this can be skimmed, or left to readers interested in the more pragmatic and immediate “how-to” aspects of spurring innovation.

The book’s more interesting sections (particularly the first three chapters) delve into how humans process information and what this means for companies that need to innovate. The human brain constantly creates models to process the world. Without these “boxes” our brains would be overwhelmed as we confront the strange details of the world we occupy. Consider the leap of faith required to get on an airplane for a cross-country flight, or stepping from a platform onto to a crowded subway car to zip through underground tunnels. Even leaving the house requires some basic assumptions about safety. Who can really say the sky won’t fall this afternoon, or that a sinkhole won’t open up on the way to work?

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The assumptions we hold can calcify and create the type of inertia that stifles growth at a company. The authors see an important distinction between inductive and deductive thinking. Induction is seeing a change in the world and using that information to create new models. Deduction uses existing boxes, no matter how stale, to solve problems. The iPhone, Iny and de Brabandere argue, came from inductive thinking. Blockbuster’s video-by-mail service, launched to compete with Netflix, was deductive. (And, lo and behold, it hasn’t worked out)

The authors hold up the company Bic as a historical example of a firm that used inductive thinking to create a lucrative new box. In the early 1970s, growth had stalled at Bic as the pen-maker exhausted its “low-cost plastic disposable writing implements” box. So Bic pivoted and began producing additional disposable plastic products. The company didn’t invent plastic razors or lighters, but eventually became a sales leader in both categories. To Iny and de Brabandere, Bic’s “creation of a new valuable box” is a eureka moment. When Eureka happens, you are in control: You ride ahead of the wave of change, taking advantage of it,” they write. “You shift perceptions and strategies in a timely and thoughtful way, and you create a new box.”

If nothing else, Thinking in New Boxes is a handy refresher on basic concepts of cognitive philosophy that most business executives probably haven’t considered since college (if they ever did). The book’s prose is clean and accessible and the authors make a persuasive argument about the deleterious effects complacency can have on a company. In fact, it’s easy to come away thinking we could all use a little more doubt in our lives.

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But inevitably, the book also raises questions about timing: how will a company, particularly one where revenue and profits are strong, know when it’s time to innovate, and how will it distinguish a bold change in business model from an ill-timed and costly plunge into uncharted waters.

Sometimes the existing box is a profitable one, worth continuing to operate within, and knowing when to make a change is more art than science. But Iny and de Brabandere believe that doubt, particularly doubt aimed at existing business models, is vital in keeping companies in touch with the constantly changing marketplace. We won’t know the next big thing until it happens (and many of us won’t recognize till long after the fact), but this book provides some tools that might help a reader be prepared, even nimble, when the door flings open.