The Brick Trick: An Interview With InnoCentive's Steven Shapiro

Posted by JohnDila on Jun 22, 2010 11:00:00 AM

Earlier this month, Steven Shapiro (InnoCentive’s Vice President, Strategic Consulting & Chief Innovation Evangelist) and I attended an InnoCentive OnRamp session at a Seeker’s headquarters, helping them understand Open Innovation (OI) and InnoCentive’s approach.

It was the first time I’d been to a Seeker’s offices, and what I saw was fascinating. One thing that really caught my attention out of the gate was how committed the Seeker CEO and top brass were to OI and IC’s approach. The president of the business unit said, "Open Innovation includes collaboration and making internal and external connections. We have to change the way we think about our business, our customers, and how we work together. If we don’t figure this out, someone else in our industry will!”

Then Steve gave a short talk to the same group (several hundred of the Seeker’s senior innovators and managers). He kicked off with an impactful interactive demonstration, which I asked him about later so I could share it with you. (Beyond InnoCentive, Shapiro is a published author about Innovation topics, and he is currently working on a new book. What follows is a bit of a sneak peak.) A good part of Steve's talk was around how IC Solvers think.

Does this resonate?

JD: Steve, I noticed you mentioned Solvers an awful lot when you addressed Seekers during the recent OnRamp session. Tell me why.

Shapiro: Guilty as charged! You’re right, John, I talk a lot about Solvers to Seekers because, let’s face it, Solvers—their numbers, their distribution, and their diversity—are at the heart of InnoCentive’s value proposition: by expanding the universe of Solvers, both the speed and quality of solutions increase for any given problem.

JD: Got it. Tell me more: What do Seekers need to know about Solvers?

Shapiro: A lot, actually. If you think about it, CEOs and top management “get” Open Innovation right away because it represents tremendous value: OI speeds up early-stage development; OI can lower costs for late-stage development; and OI can resolve scientific roadblocks; and so on.

JD: What about the rank and file Seekers? Do they get it?

Shapiro: Some do, but some don’t right away. For example, OI can be threatening to a scientist who thinks, “This is my job, my challenge. Why should we ask someone else to do it—am I not good enough?” But being good enough is not the issue; speed and agility are the issues (sometimes).

JD: Right. How do you make this point so Seekers see and understand it?

Shapiro: Ah, it’s quite fun actually! I ask them to try out two models of thinking about the same problem, and then ask them to evaluate which one yields more creative, innovative solutions. It always works! I call it the Brick Trick, and it goes like this:

Let’s start with a quick experiment that will give you a deeper understanding of the difference between dot-thinking and line-thinking. It is based on a creative problem-solving technique I teach my clients.

Imagine for a moment I am holding a brick. It’s an ordinary brick used in making a house. The question is, “What are all of the different ways in which you can use a brick?” You can brainstorm a list by yourself or with a friend.

It doesn’t matter what ideas you develop. Just think freely. Allow yourself about a minute to develop solutions.


Most likely, the way you developed the solution was by looking at the brick and considering its attributes. It’s rough, it’s heavy, and it’s dangerous. When I ask groups this question, the solutions range from using it as a paperweight to using it as a weapon.

Your list might look something like this:

  1. Put the brick under the wheels of a car to prevent it from rolling backward
  2. Put the brick in the toilet’s tank to reduce the amount of water that is used while flushing
  3. Use the brick as a replacement for the remote control when you can’t find it; throw it at the TV to turn it off

When polling a group for answers, we find that most people develop very similar ideas. The range of creativity is limited.

Now, let’s do the same activity again, but with a twist. The question is the same:

“What are all of the different ways in which you can use a brick?”

But this time, instead of looking at the attributes of the brick, I want you to think of something totally random and find ways of using a brick for that.

For example, if the random item is “the body,” think of all the ways of using a brick on the body.



OK, let’s see what happened. Compare your second list with the one you made earlier (when you thought of the attributes of the brick).

When I ask groups about the second model, they come up with things like:

  1. Use it as a weight to build up your biceps
  2. Use it as a loofah replacement to slough off dead and rough skin cells
  3. Balance it on your head to improve your posture
  4. A short guy (like me) could use it on the bottoms of the shoes to increase his height

The first way—looking at the attributes of a brick—represents the way the more logical people/mindsets tend to think. They look at a problem and analyze/deduce solutions based on past knowledge and facts about the problem at hand.

The second way—to find random uses—represents the way that the more relational people/mindsets tend to think. They look for connections between ideas, experiences, and people.

When polling a group after this second activity, we find a wide range of diverse thinking. There is typically very little overlap with the ideas generated in the first version.

After doing the brick exercise with an audience, I always ask, “Which approach led to solutions that were more creative? This does not necessarily mean that it was easier or that you developed more solutions. But it means that the solutions you did come up with felt more breakthrough in nature.”

JD: And what do people tell you?

Shapiro: After performing this activity with over a quarter million people, I have found that audiences consistently respond that the second way—the “random” connection approach—led to more creative solutions. In fact, between 75 percent and 95 percent of audience members choose this method. This is not surprising because in some respects this approach reflects the true definition of creativity.

Topics: Innovation Insights

Follow InnoCentive

Search Blog

Join 5,000+ Subscribers

Recent Posts