When discussing innovation and creativity, it is often critical to “think outside the box.” Jacob Goldenberg, author of Inside the box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results , professor of Marketing at the Arison School of Business Administration at the IDC Herzliya, became one of great leaders in this field by advocating a completely different idea. Today, he shares with us the story of creating his life.
For those who are not familiar with you, let us know more about you, why did you become a professor? What has driven you and what is your vision?
JG: I didn’t plan to become a professor. Each degree I started was supposed to be the last one. I realized for each plan I had, the improvisations were much better than the original plans.
In the benefit of hindsight I can find that there is a theme behind my decisions and choices I made: I followed my feelings and trusted them. While I used my brain to analyze situations and compare alternatives, the significant choices I made were emotional: I wanted to do only what I was in love with.
When you come up with new ideas and discover something new, what happens in your mind? Do you visualize information or you are driven more by verbalization?
JG: I am more graphical than verbal, but I am not good in art. An idea appears to me usually not in words, and not in pictures either. It is something in the middle: I see charts that depict relations and correlations I can then try to understand.
What was the hardest challenge you have had in your life and how did you overcome it?
JG: My first significant study on creativity was consolidated into an academic paper on advertising while I was a research student in physics. I believed it was a well-researched, solid paper with salient points on creativity. I submitted the article with high hopes for its new insight and clear impact on this evolving topic. It was promptly panned, cited by the journal as completely off-topic and non-scientific. The paper was completely rejected. It was a failure. My brilliant mentor in physics (Professor Sorin Solomon), stunned and aggravated by the outcome, vowed never to work in this field again. I watched my entire plan crash to pieces. It was a terrible feeling.
Only with the benefit of hindsight I can see that it was actually a blessing in disguise. This failure was a turning point for me. I didn’t want to finish my Ph.D. on innovation and marketing, with publications only in physics. I wanted the right people from the relevant field to read about this work. I didn’t want to vanish from the academic world quietly – I wanted to leave something behind.
Instead of walking away from the idea, I opened my mind to the feedback I was given. I wondered whether my unfamiliarity with industry jargon was my downfall. I considered whether approaching the work as a social scientist versus a physicist would have provided a better end result. These conundrums plagued me.
Around the same time that I received news of my article’s rejection, I met Prof. David Mazursky, a social scientist in a marketing department at Hebrew University. I presented my paper to him and his reaction was overwhelming. He said that I had made several mistakes and pledged his full support if I continued to pursue this work. This was very inspiring to me, and during our short conversation, he became my co-adviser.
Little did I understand at the time, but this failure would lead me to unexpected successes, partnering with the brightest minds in innovation and working concurrently at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Columbia University in New York. This seemingly simple decision would be the beginning of a meaningful and successful academic career. In fact, it changed the entire course of my life.
Inspired by the combination of natural and social science paradigms I began publishing papers in my desired area of interest: creativity research. To my knowledge, we were the first to publish a business-oriented topic in Science, which only included social science topics in an extremely limited capacity. But the work grew from there, garnering the immediate attention of top scientific journals in the field. This work led to several texts on creativity and innovation, a worldwide consulting company called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) with international and Fortune 100 companies as clients, and most recently, the first practitioner’s book to systematic approach to creativity called Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results. I co-authored Inside the Box with my friend and business partner Drew Boyd, formerly a Johnson & Johnson executive. Published in June of 2013, our book has already been translated into 12 languages and is the preeminent guide to systematic inventing. Our process of creativity is used by Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, GE, SAP, Bayer and Philips to name a few.
When I reflect on my life and where I am today, I attribute my first failure – the rejection from the scientific journal where my work was initially submitted – as the impetus for continuing the work. But more than that, this failure led to unexpected joy. I found a passion and great reward in an academic career teaching others about creativity, new product development, innovation and marketing. I have made lifelong friendships with my mentors and partners. I have shared the outcomes of my work with possibly hundreds of thousands of inventors through SIT and Inside the Box. I learned that failure is a part of the job, and that it guides you.
We need to learn to love our failures because we never know when failure will become an opportunity.
What is the most typical misperception that people have towards creativity and innovation?
JG: The traditional view of creativity is that it’s unstructured and doesn’t follow any rules or patterns. It holds that you should start with a problem and then “brainstorm” ideas without restraint until you find a solution; that you should “go wild” making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your products, services, or processes; that straying as far afield as possible will help you come up with a breakthrough idea. In short, that you need to think “outside the box.”
None of this is supported empirically, in fact most of these views lead to the opposite results: using these approaches you will most likely end up with fewer ideas and they will be less creative, and with lower value.
How could the entire world believe in this fruitless wild goose search using random search for ideas? Due to a few reasons:
- It is a fun process.
- The results are measured after-the-fact so it’s difficult to draw connections between poor results and the ideation process.
- The metaphor “outside the box” is beautiful, even if misleading.
What is the difference between people who can make the most of their potential and those who cannot?
JG: In my view, people who do what they love, and love what they do, people who are honest with themselves, and people who are not afraid to fail (and learn the lesson) eventually make the most of their potential.
Any other way is suboptimal. The other advantage is that they are probably happier.
It is often the case that people are hesitant to accept a new way of thinking. How do you convince people to believe in you, especially when it is intangible like “Inside the Box”?
JG: Max Planck  said that “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. ” Well, I don’t wish anyone to die of course, but I try to convince only people who have an open mind and courage to seriously examine the possibility that what they believed in so far was wrong. You may be surprised how many people are willing to put to a test even the deepest beliefs.
For you, what is the definition of “being successful”?
JG: Success is when you are in a perfect equilibrium in your life, you have to break the symmetry to get there but you don’t need to invest energy in maintaining it.
So many young people are suffering from understanding what they want to do with their life although they have no inconvenience materialistically. What is the most important life lesson you have ever learned?
JG: I learned that prediction is very difficult. Instead of trying to predict the future, one should try to create it. Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player, had more strikeouts than anyone else, but he also had more home runs than anyone else. Embracing failures when trying to create a future will channel the efforts to the right success.
If you can leave one message to make the world better, what would your message be?
JG: I don’t know if I should give any advise on this matter. Societies are complex systems, and social forces are very strong. There is no magical action or a medicine we can take. But it does seem that we are trapped in vicious circles sometimes. If the complexity and its forces are blowing a wind that is too strong, we cannot control it, but maybe we can adjust our sails to have a better journey.
This means that instead of fighting against forces we keep the destination in our mind and sale to this target with given winds. It is not as passive as it sounds because all individuals will have the right target the coordinated journey can end up at the right destination. The problem is who decides what is the right destination? I believe that 99% of us know what is right. We just wait for macro forces to shape the world to be better, instead of taking a small boat and start sailing.
If you can make a call to 20-year-old Jacob Goldenberg, what advice you would give him?
- It is not a mistake unless you make it twice.
- No matter how long you have traveled on the wrong road you can always turn around.
- Believe and doubt your ideas at the same time.