Ideas are a key part of any innovation. We often talk about the Eureka moment, and an idea simply popping into our minds out of thin air. There is considerable evidence that we are more likely to have a Eureka moment when our thinking is not focused on the problem at hand, as narrow focus can actually inhibit our ability to see connections. So having a breakthrough idea in the shower, on the golf course, or even down the pub, is not uncommon. But despite the apparently random location of Eureka, these ideas still need to come from somewhere. More often than not, that somewhere is something we already know, that is relevant to our problem but in a non-obvious way. Maybe we realize that traffic flow is a lot like water flow, and hence fluid dynamics. Or perhaps we realize that we can improve a camera by looking at how a human eye works. Often, these types of connections are largely unconscious and appear random. In the Holiday spirit, here are ten ways we can potentially nudge ourselves to make
In the Holiday spirit, here are ten ways we can potentially nudge ourselves to make non obvious, but relevant connections more effectively and more frequently.
- Illusion of Understanding: Sometimes simply diving deeply into a problem will automatically suggest solutions. When we are deeply familiar with something, we often implicitly assume we know every detail of how it works. But just as it is hard to proofread a document for the fifth or sixth time (there is probably a typo or two in this blog that I’ve missed), familiarity often causes us to skip over details in a system. Simply mapping out our problem, or the system in which it sits, in fine detail, or better, teaching it to someone else, can often trigger ideas we may otherwise miss.
- Turn your problem into the solution. Innovation judo is the art of turning the momentum of a problem against itself. An obvious example of this is inoculation, where we leverage the non-linear nature of infection to trigger an immune response, by giving a patient a low dose of a pathogen. We take this for granted today, but it was a brilliant, and very counter-intuitive idea in its time. So does our problem incorporate resources that we can leverage against it? For example, in the cleaning business, fatty acids are a common component of many soils and are actually surfactants in their own right. We can therefore create cleaning formulas that highjack them and use dirt to help us clean dirt. Similarly, solar panels capture heat beating down on a roof, and convert it into electricity that can be used for air conditioning.
- Wrong Problem. There is a well-known story about NASAs space pen. Ball-point pens require gravity to pull ink onto the paper, and this poses a rather obvious problem for writing in zero gravity. According to legend, NASA spent millions developing a space pen that pumped ink onto paper, while the Russians simply used a pencil to do the same job. In reality, this legend only has a tenuous link to reality, and the pen was actually developed by a third party (Fisher pens) and was used by both NASA and the Russian space program. But it does illustrate an important point. All too often, we get too narrowly focused on a problem, and in so doing miss a bigger opportunity. In this case, the real problem was not how to modify a pen, but instead, how to write at zero G, which a pencil can achieve, albeit with some issues associated with broken lead and flammability. Can we expand our problem definition, and in so doing find a simpler solution to a problem?
- Space & Time Travel. There is more than one way to fall into the trap of defining a problem too narrowly. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure, and often the answer to a problem can literally be much bigger or smaller than the problem itself. Anticipatory maintenance is not just for automobiles, but applies to our health, our computers, even how we manage our bosses. A sheared bolt in an aircraft might be the result of a poorly shaped or poorly positioned bolt, but can also be the direct result of microscopic flaws in the metal, or excessive vibration across the whole aircraft. The Nine Windows Tool used in TRIZ or TIPS (The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), is quite an effective tool that can help us challenge whether we are looking at problems at the right spatial scale, or at the right point in the process.
- Technology trends. These are another potentially useful source of inspiration that we can draw from TIPS. Technology tends to evolve inconsistent directions. For example, structural materials tend to evolve from solids to more weight efficient foams or honeycombs. Product forms tend to evolve from solids to powders to liquids to fields. Take laundry products, which started off as soap bars, evolved into powders, then became gels and liquids, and are poised to be challenged by ultrasonic washing machines. I’m not a huge fan of rigid TRIZ or TIPS methodologies, but knowing these trends can be a great way to evaluate how evolved our product or system is, and suggest ways to innovate for the next generation.
- Treating the Symptoms. This is closely related to treating the wrong problem. But especially when we are in firefighting mode, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating the symptoms, and in so doing, miss the opportunity to solve the root cause. You can stick a catalytic converter on a car exhaust to reduce unwanted emissions, but the more effective, and disruptive innovation is to replace the internal combustion engine with an alternative that does not create emissions in the first place.
- Bio-inspired Innovation and Biomimicry. Pretty much any challenge we face has already been solved in nature, which has billions of years of evolution, and millions of prototypes to its credit. Whether it is super efficient aerodynamics, as embodied by the gliding albatross, complex decision making by small autonomous units (swarm intelligence), or the conversion of CO2 into useful building material (mollusks), nature has already done it. The upside potential if we can steal these largely ‘pre-cooked’ innovations is enormous. But there are challenges, both in finding useful analogies amongst millions of potential options and in adapting nature’s soft, water and carbon-based technology to make it work using the science and engineering we have available. But by using analogy, and describing our problems in terms of generic functions or systems, it is possible to make connections and innovate based on successful systems that are already working in nature. Velcro, quieter high-speed trains, and energy efficient computer screens are existing examples that have drawn inspiration from seed pods, kingfishers, and butterflies, and there are many more examples that can be found via a quick Google search of ‘biomimicry’.
- Art & Science. Nature is not the only place where innovative solutions to our problems can be found. The arts are also a wealth of sometimes surprisingly obvious innovations that we can steal and apply to a wide variety of problems. For example, early computer programming was adapted from punch-cards used in Jacquard tapestry looms, Alexis Carrel won a Nobel Prize for developing the suturing techniques used in heart surgery by reapplying techniques from lace making, the pace maker is derived from a musical metronome, and the military are increasingly using ‘video games’ for training and recruitment screening. It was Einstein who said, “The greatest scientists are always artists as well”, and we can all potentially open doors to innovation by learning from the arts.
- Analogy. Both of the previous examples involve reaching into fields that have already solved similar challenges to ones we face, or that have similar systems that have evolved to a more advanced level. Nature and art are two possible places to search, but we don’t have to be limited to them. Any field that has a history of innovation is potentially ripe for picking. Two of my favorites are the military and medicine. But we can steal from virtually anywhere if we are open to looking for analogies. James Dyson, for example, famously developed his innovative vacuum cleaning by ‘stealing’ technology from a saw-mill, something that faced similar challenges to a vacuum cleaner associated with removing dust and dirt from the air. When using analogy, to some extent, fortune favors the prepared mind, and someone like Dyson, who was somewhat obsessed by a specific problem, can often organically find potential solutions simply by looking through the world through that lens and being open to seeing connections. We can also be more systematic about this, and use problem mapping, and analogical search strategies to increase our chances of finding non-obvious, but useful similarities between out challenges, and superficially different domains.
- Thinking Hats. This is an innovation approach pioneered by Edward DeBono, where different ‘hats’ are used as a metaphor for looking at problems through a number of different lenses, including data based, intuitive, and logical conceptual frames. This approach has flaws, especially in that it is quite difficult to separate out different thinking approaches. We cannot, for example, simply turn off our emotions and intuitions. Nonetheless, the concept of approaching the same problem through a number of different lenses can help us to see things in different ways and can play a role as part of an innovation process.
What all of these have in common, is that they help us to reframe our problems or systems in slightly different ways, and to draw inspiration from less obvious places. I do not believe that there is one single, magic way to trigger this kind of innovative idea transfer. But if we can look at a problem differently, or find someone who has already solved a similar problem somewhere else, I do believe we have increased our chances of coming up with innovative, potentially disruptive ideas.
image credit: familyholidayhelpers.org
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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete