Think Inside the Box

3 min readApr 12, 2023

I [Dan] was recently the student of Jacob Goldenberg at Columbia Business School, and I couldn’t help but feel captivated by his ideas on innovation. Jacob, co-author of the book “Think Inside the Box,” taught me that contrary to popular belief, innovation doesn’t always require thinking “outside the box.” Rather, concentrating on the internal aspects of a problem and limiting options can lead to more consistent results. I couldn’t help but wonder: how might these principles apply to education?

It’s no secret that CEOs view innovation as the backbone of business growth. Yet, traditional methods of fostering creativity often leave them feeling dissatisfied with their organisations’ performance. Enter Goldenberg’s approach, which breaks down a product, concept, or service into components and manipulates them using one of five techniques: subtraction, task unification, multiplication, division, and attribute dependency. These techniques, when applied to education, can create transformative learning experiences and better equip students with essential skills for the real world.


By removing seemingly essential elements from a product, such as Sony’s Walkman ditching the recording function, or Philips Electronics slimming down DVD players, these companies revolutionised their respective industries. In education, subtraction might mean replacing traditional classroom elements like lectures and fixed schedules with more flexible, student-centred approaches, such as project-based learning or self-paced study. This change fosters autonomy and motivation among learners.

Task unification:

This technique fuses unrelated tasks or functions to create innovative solutions. Think Samsonite’s backpack that doubles as a massager or the Captcha system that helps transcribe printed content into digital form. In education, task unification can lead to interdisciplinary curricula that merge subjects or skills, resulting in creative problem-solving, cultural understanding, and empathy among students. This approach helps them see the interconnectedness of knowledge and prepares them for a world where complex challenges require multidisciplinary solutions.


This involves copying a component and altering it — like an array of lenses for cameras or adding more blades to razors. In education, multiplication can mean offering various learning experiences that cater to different levels of prior knowledge, interests, or abilities. Providing diverse opportunities for students to explore and apply concepts in a range of contexts helps them develop a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and the ability to transfer skills and knowledge to new situations.


This technique separates product or service components and rearranges them, as seen in central air-conditioning units and Johnson & Johnson’s medical-sales training program. In education, division can involve breaking down traditional structures and rearranging them to suit learners’ needs better. Shorter, focused learning sessions and separating assessment from grading can encourage a growth mindset and increase student engagement.

Attribute Dependency:

This makes product attributes change in response to changes in another attribute or the environment — like eyewear with transition lenses or Nestea Winter Collection’s room temperature or heated iced tea. In education, attribute dependency can be seen in adaptive learning technologies that adjust the learning experience based on individual students’ progress.

Ronald Finke’s 1992 discovery that people are better at searching for benefits for given configurations, rather than finding the best configuration for a given benefit, highlights the importance of focusing on solutions before problems. Invention is not reserved for the gifted but can be mastered by anyone with the right approach and practice.

By applying these innovative techniques to education, we can create more engaging, relevant, and effective learning experiences that prepare students for a rapidly evolving world. Fostering creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability empowers our students to face future challenges with confidence and resilience.