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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Pink Box, Assumptions, and InnovationI recently met up with a client. The first thing I noticed was the bandage on his left hand. I asked what happened.

He said, “I was looking for a box that contained cloth napkins for a dinner party we were throwing. I went to the garage, remembering that they were in a box on a shelf. I saw a pink box high up on one shelf and quickly pulled it down. I assumed since the box was pink, it would contain something soft and fluffy. The reality is that the box contained knives. Who puts knives in a pink box? I was not prepared for something so heavy. The box fell as I pulled it down. The knives fell out of the box and stabbed my hand.”

His assumptions got the best of him. While looking for fluffy napkins, he encountered a pink box with knives. This caught him off guard as it did not fit with his mental model.

Everyone has unconscious biases. We make assumptions about everything.

This is not necessarily bad. The brain is wired for survival. Everything we have done in the past has kept us alive, and therefore the brain wants to perpetuate the past. If we didn’t make assumptions, we would have to process all information as though it were the first time we were in that situation. Back in the days of saber tooth tigers, this could be deadly as our reactions would be way too slow.

Even in today’s society, assumptions are good. If it is cold out and the road looks wet, we might walk carefully for fear of black ice. If our phone rings and we don’t know the number, or the area code is from Orlando (the home of telemarketers selling times shares), we might let it go to voicemail. These assumptions don’t hurt us, they protect us.

However, there are times when assumptions can be dangerous.

Racial profiling has become so extreme that we don’t trust anyone who doesn’t look like us. This creates fear, resentment, and damage to our society.

The assumptions businesses make can kill their innovations. We assume that…

  • our past products will create future success. Blockbuster Video and Kodak learned that this is not always the case.
  • our focus groups give us accurate information about what people truly want. New Coke tested well but died a quick death after being released.
  • our products need to get better, faster, and more sophisticated. But Xbox and PlayStation learned that the simplicity of the Nintendo Wii was preferred. Back in 2008 Nintendo outsold the Xbox and PlayStation combined. And now, mobile apps (Candy Crush anyone?) have started to replace the dedicated machines for gaming.
  • our past customers will drive future needs. But every company is scrambling to address the changing requirements of Millennials.
  • our past competitors will be our future competitors. But uber is teaching the once monopolistic taxi industry that technology (uber is a technology company, not a transportation company) can sometimes trump infrastructure and outdated regulations.


And the list goes on and on.

Assumptions can help speed decision making. But they can also lead us down a dangerous path of innovating on the past rather than creating for the future.

Where are the pink boxes in your life? In your business? Beware: pink boxes may contain deadly knives.

  1. Well said Stephen. While assumptions are tremendously useful in daily life, you do need to be wary of them. Your pink box metaphor is a great example. Past experiences can deceive us.

    When people realise this however, existing assumptions create great opportunities. For instance, once you see the potential of breaking certain (written and unwritten) ‘rules’, you’re on the path to brilliant insights and delightfully creative approaches. I wrote an article on this not too long ago. It tells the story a Dutch businessman who (rather cheekily) challenged his assumptions on tax deduction: http://hatrabbits.com/break-the-rules/

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