Thinking outside the box is an overly used term in the marketing world. Truly extraordinary creative ideas are dubbed as being ‘outside the box.’ But what if I told you that you could be more creative if you think inside the box? It’s crazy, but true. There are books and concepts, such as Systematic Inventive Thinking, that pay homage to thinking inside the box to promote creativity and innovation.

So, what exactly is thinking inside the box and how can constraints make you more creative? Below are a few principles, examples, and tools to help you get started.

Defining the Closed World

To think inside the box and apply constraints, you first need to define what your closed world is. What is the problem you are trying to solve? What are the components of your problem world?

For example, consider you want to improve the customer experience of a movie theater. The components of your closed world would include employees, the ticket counter, the entrance, the concessions, the bathrooms, the theater rooms, and maybe a bar/seating area for customers waiting for their movies to start. After identifying your closed world components, you can begin brainstorming how these components can be rearranged and altered to improve the customer experience. Perhaps it is utilizing your existing employees to provide a concierge VIP experience where customers are escorted to their designated theater and provided food and drinks upon request. This solution certainly did not bring in new components, such as go-carts to transport customers from the entrance to their theater, but it will certainly improve the customer experience using the resources you already have.

Defining the closed world is an exercise that forces you to identity your internal resources versus finding new external resources as the solution. While sometimes it is easier to come up with external solutions to help solve your problem, think the go-carts in the movie theater example above, it may not always be the most effective idea. Not only will external solutions incur additional costs but assessing internal resources should always be the first plan of action when brainstorming a solution to your problem.

Limited Resources = Creativity

The next principle to think inside the box and apply constraints to is the concept that limited resources provide more creative results. To help support this concept, below are two examples that utilized limited resources to develop creative solutions.

My favorite example of limited resources comes from NASA’s third mission to the moon, Apollo 13, in 1970. Unfortunately, the astronauts never made it due to an oxygen tank exploding on the spacecraft only 56 hours into the historic flight. After the famous “Houston, we have a problem” words were spoken, the engineers at NASA quickly went to work to try to find a solution to save the astronauts lives. They did not have the ability to fly additional resources to the spacecraft, so they had to use that was aboard Apollo 13 to reduce dangerously high hydrogen levels. In the 1995 blockbuster hit about the mission, there is an iconic scene where the engineers dump the only resources available out on a table to try and build a filter that would literally fit a square peg in a round hole. The result was an extremely creative solution that saved the astronauts’ lives and brought them back safely home to earth. Had the engineers at NASA had more time and an infinite amount of resources, I am not confident they would have come up with an equally creative and effective solution.

Another example of utilizing limited resources to develop creative solutions comes from IKEA. IKEA took the idea of a traditional furniture store and rearranged the layout to a more self-serve model for customers. They even took it a step further and divided out the packaging to cut costs. So instead of having a dresser come in one box, it will most likely come in several boxes to self-assemble. This allows similar pieces and product lines to share the same items and cut down on unnecessary overage. IKEA took this wholesale model approach by utilizing what they currently had: furniture, a warehouse, and packaging, and created a new store that broke the traditional furniture model. The changes brought forth cost saving efficiencies that allowed IKEA to lower their costs to customers to make their products more accessible to the average middle-income family.

Both real-world examples showcase how limited resources inspired creativity to both save lives and disrupt an entire business vertical. It further illustrates the point that the answer does not always live outside of the closed world. Sometimes the more creative solutions come from what you already have.

Successfully Applying Constraints

Now that you’ve identified your closed world and recognized that limited resources can spark creativity, it’s time to start applying constraints to brainstorm an innovative solution of your own.

When brainstorming at Zion & Zion, we have a set of generic constraints that our team uses whenever we get stuck. These include the following:

  • An idea that would only take a day/week to implement
  • An idea that only costs $10
  • An idea that would cost $1,000,000
  • An idea that would delight your grandmother
  • An idea that would be used at Disneyland
  • An idea that would make your boss angry

The ideas that come from these constraints may not be the final answer, but the inspiration can lead to practical ideas using limited resources within your closed world. For example, imagine you are brainstorming ways to make presentations more engaging. Using the million-dollar cost constraint, you come up with an idea of giving each participant their very own state-of-the-art tablets to follow along, ask questions, provide comments, and take part in activities. If budget does not permit such an expenditure, perhaps you take the idea of having participants engage online and present via Zoom versus in-person. Participants can still follow along, ask questions, provide comments, and take part in activities, all without having to bring in an external resource such as state-of-the-art tablets.


The bottom line is that there will always be constraints, no matter what project you are working on whether it’s budget, timing, or mandatory deliverables. Knowing what the problem is and defining your closed world will help you asses what internal resources you have and what is possible with those resources.

So, the next time you are assigned a project with constraints, don’t think of the constraints as a hindrance. Think of them as an opportunity to be more creative.