Almost everyone in the business world is familiar with the brainstorming maxim: think outside the box. However, a recent study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh found ideas that were closely related to a problem helped form the most viable solutions. 

Using OpenIDEO, a web-based crowdsourced innovation platform used to address a wide range of social and environmental problems like human rights violations and job growth for youth, researchers—recent University of Pittsburgh graduate Joel Chan and his mentor Christian Schunn of Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, along with Carnegie Mellon University’s Steven Dow—challenged participants to come up with solutions for large-scale problems like "How might we inspire and enable communities to take more initiative in making their local environments better?" and "How can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?" 

In a paper, published inDesign Studies, Chan, Schunn, and Dow explain how expert designers from OpenIDEO then rated the solutions based on which concepts were most likely to produce real-world impact and chose 10 winning ideas. The researchers examined which ideas made the shortlist and what inspired those ideas. 

The process took up to 10 weeks. Other similar studies, Chan says in a Pitt news release, have looked at the creative process over a much shorter period of time. Also, he adds, “in our study we had more than 350 participants and thousands of ideas. Creativity studies typically have many participants solve ‘toy’ problems or observe few participants solving real problems—in our study we had both, lending greater strength to our conclusions.” 

Then, the researchers used an algorithm to determine whether an idea was near to or far from the posted problem. This algorithm was first vetted against human judgments and proved to be quite good at determining idea distance. The researchers found that the best ideas are built on existing concepts within the field of the problem being solved ("near" inspiration), instead of looking to outside sources ("far" inspiration). 

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“Instead of seeing a bigger effect of far inspirations,” Chan says, “I saw that ideas built on source ideas more closely related to the problem tended to be selected more often. And I saw the same pattern across 12 very different problems—ranging from preventing human rights violations to fostering greater connectedness in urban communities to improving employment prospects for young people.” 

For example, if considering the problem of electronic waste, the best idea would likely be inspired by a local recycling plant with an electronic waste disposal program ("near" inspiration), rather than another industry ("far" inspiration), such as an idea to create compostable electronics based on edible food package technology. 

Bottom line: When seeking inspiration to solve the next organizational crisis, the best strategy may be to look at how others are solving similar problems.