Sometimes the box is a good place to think

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Accountants looking to solve problems or come up with innovative solutions will often try to “think outside the box” – but that may be a serious mistake, according to puzzle-builder David Kwong.

In a keynote address at the Rainmaker Cos.’ 2017 SuperConference: Beyond the Barriers, Kwong explained the typical scenario for this kind of activity: “You’re given unlimited time and space to come up with the next big idea. They say, ‘Take a blank slate, do some blue-sky thinking, go figure it out,’” he said. “But this is the worst environment for solving a problem.”

This concept of “brainstorming,” he explained, was created by advertising executives in the 1950s, but researchers in the social sciences have since discovered that that kind of big-group, no-limits activity doesn’t actually produce much in the way of results.

To start, researchers say that the optimal group size is about four people – enough to provide variety, but not so many that things devolve into chaos.

Even more important, according to Kwong, who regularly creates crossword puzzles for The New York Times, and consults on magic and puzzles for a number of TV shows and movies, is the fact that people are actually more creative when they have some constraints – when there’s a box they have to think inside.

With every option open to them, decision-makers and innovators can fall victim to what’s called the Paradox of Choice, where they have so many possible avenues to pursue that they are unable to choose one.

“The solution is to impose parameters,” Kwong said. “This is how we are wired to think – it’s almost a survival instinct: As we’re hit by challenges, our brain is wired to figure out how to think around these problems.”

He gave a host of examples, from the way the strict rules of haikus, sonnets, and Medieval religious art inspired brilliant heights of creativity – and then cited a more modern illustration: Dr. Seuss’ editor, Bennett Cerf, realizing that the children’s author’s hugely successful The Cat in the Hat only used 250 words, challenged him to write a book using only 50 words.

The result? Green Eggs and Ham.

“Innovation lives at the intersection of constraint and vision,” Kwong said, and offered a number of suggestions to help accountants pursue new ideas and new solutions more efficiently and more productively:
Stay small. More compact groups generally do better; as an example, Kwong noted the many technology innovations that have arisen from just a couple of people working in a garage or dorm room.
Impose time restrictions. “Deadlines will make you spit out ideas faster,” Kwong said, adding that the trick is to fail often and fast, and move through the bad ideas quickly.
Just decide. Sometimes it’s more important to make a decision than to wade through all the possible ramifications of a choice. Kwong cited another paradox, that of Buridan’s Ass, which starves to death between two bales of hay because it can’t pick one over the other.
Take small, iterative steps. Not all problems can be solved at once; most great innovations evolve over a period of time.
Balance your parameters. Kwong cited Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer’s recommendation for a “healthy disregard for the impossible” – but with an emphasis on “healthy.” Too many constraints can be as bad as too few.

In the end, Kwong said, blue-sky brainstorming ignores the reality that there actually is a box. “It’s about living inside the box,” he said. “There are so many constraints, challenges and barriers in life that, to make the most impact, you have to embrace those challenges, show up for the puzzle, and break through those barriers.”

“To be boundless and limitless, you need to impose those boundaries and limits to start,” he said.

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