To Innovate, Find What's Hiding in Plain Sight

Harvard Business Review

In our last post, we asked the question, "What's the connection between counting squares and innovation?" In order to come up with the answer, we presented you with the following figure and asked you how many squares you could find. It turns out, the answer isn't so simple.

Count the Squares

It was clear that this was a fun, engaging exercise, as we had 400 comments in the HBR blog post, an additional 312 comments in Facebook, and about 40 individual email responses. We enjoyed reading the comments and seeing the enthusiasm with which you wrote them. Given the number of good responses, we could not choose the top five; instead, we will be giving a copy of Reverse Innovation to 20 winners.

How you arrive at the answer can make a big difference in what you find. In the first "systematic" analysis, we can find 30 squares.

16 (1x1 squares) + 9 (2x2 squares) + 4 (3x3 squares) + 1 (4x4 square) = 30 squares.

The squares were always there, but you didn't find them until you look for them. At first glance, you can easily see 16 squares. But the reality as it appears to be is often different from the reality as it is — 30 squares. You need to spend time and dig deeper to understand the reality as it is. Innovative solutions are always there for the problems we face, but you won't find them unless you look for them.

There is a method to the madness (systematically going through 1x1, 2x2, 3x3, and 4x4 squares in this case). It takes time to find the method, but when you do, it opens up many more solutions and opportunities for any innovation problem. To quote one of the commenters, "We need to look beyond what meets the eye and what we are told, for more innovative perspectives both on the problem as well as the solutions born out of detachment to either."

But can we do even better than a systematic analysis? On a more creative note, there are 30 squares with black edges and 30 squares with white edges. We've now discovered 60 squares. Out-of-the-box thinking can open up even more solutions. The foundation of systematic method, combined with out-of-the-box thinking, can result in order-of-magnitude change in performance. There were several creative replies with many more squares, all the way to infinity. Thank you for stretching our thinking. There are no limits to out-of-the box thinking. Only our own imagination is the limiting factor. To quote on of the commenters, "Don't think it's impossible, stretch the limits, bend the rules without breaking them — be curious — seek something new — have fun!"

Titan, an Indian company that is part of the giant industrial conglomerate the Tata group, used this theory in practice. Titan wanted to make a new watch, one that someone could use every day. It needed to meet the demands of everyday use under tough conditions in India — water-resistant and able to withstand heat and dust. At the same time, they wanted it to look elegant and ultraslim. Even the Swiss, the leaders in watch manufacturing, thought this was impossible. A watch can either be water-resistant or ultraslim, but it can't be both. Why? In order to make a watch ultraslim, they must miniaturize the battery. But to make the watch water-resistant, the back cover has to be sealed, making it difficult to replace the battery. A miniaturized battery has a shorter lifespan and would require frequent replacement. Hence, water-resistance and ultraslimness were considered irreconcilable goals.

To the team at Titan, this only meant that they needed to redouble their efforts. They applied breakthrough thinking to resolve what were thought to be design tradeoffs with "and" thinking. They looked at three main components of the watch:

  1. The glass cover: The team had the choice between a thick, strong glass casing or a thin glass casing that was flimsy. In the end, they reconciled the paradox and found a solution that was both thin and strong: sapphire crystal glass. It was thin, attractive, and at the same time sturdy. Like the squares in our puzzle, the sapphire crystal glass was always there (the properties of sapphire crystal glass were well-known), but nobody found them until Titan looked for them systematically.
  2. The metal casing: Here, they had to choose between a thick, water-resistant cover and a thin cover that was not water-resistant. They resolved this tradeoff by using titanium. It was thin, sturdy, and could provide a water-resistant casing.
  3. The battery: As mentioned above, water-resistant means the back casing had to be completely sealed, causing battery changes to be difficult. So they had to double battery life while at the same time miniaturizing the battery. They looked systematically at ways to have a small battery that still did not have to be changed frequently. In other words, they found the 30 extra squares in the puzzle. In doing so, they drastically reduced the movements in the watch, so the battery had less work to do. They also innovated on a motor design that reduced power consumption by 50%, thereby again extending battery life. Finally, they identified a supplier who could miniaturize the battery without any loss in battery life. Thus, Titan ended up with a miniaturized battery that had 200% of the life of a normal battery!

Some of the solutions Titan uncovered were well-known. However, they used systematic thinking to achieve dramatic improvements. They complemented the systematic analysis with out-of-the-box thinking. The end result was the Edge line of watches from Titan that were very successful. The watch was 3.35 mm thin, encompassing a movement that has only 1.15 mm thickness and weighs less than 36 grams. The watch won multiple awards, and thanks in part to the Edge's success, Titan is now the fifth largest watch manufacturer in the world.

Breakthrough innovation isn't easy, and while systematic approaches help, taking it a step further with out-of-the-box thinking can lead to new, different, and in some cases, award-winning solutions. So when you're staring at your next innovation puzzle, don't stop at 30 squares. Think creatively to find what other solutions may be hiding in plain sight.

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