Expect prob­lems,” said the essay­ist Alfred A. Mon­ta­pert, “and eat them for break­fast.” That makes total sense to any­one involved in nextsens­ing.

In my con­ver­sa­tions with MBA stu­dents and cor­po­rate clients alike, one ques­tion pops up repeat­ed­ly: “How do we iden­ti­fy pow­er­ful new busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties?” My guess is that as the world moves from a post-aus­ter­i­ty growth mind­set, this ques­tion will be asked more and more.

A good answer, but by no means the only one, is to start with a prob­lem — a real prob­lem that some­one has (most like­ly, a cur­rent cus­tomer) that is nag­ging, sys­temic and ram­pant. Then find a way that your firm can address it.

And it’s amaz­ing how many nag­ging, sys­temic and ram­pant prob­lems have yet to be addressed. For decades mod­ern med­i­cine has used blood tests for all types of health care process­es. Not sure about your per­son­al expe­ri­ence, but not every­one who has tried to pull my blood has been easy and quick to work with. Maybe it’s my arms or maybe it’s their train­ing or tech­niques, but pulling blood can some­times seem like pulling teeth. (Ouch!)

Whether that’s been your expe­ri­ence or not, please hop over to read the report by Nid­hi Goy­al, a gold medal­ist Post Grad­u­ate in Atmos­pher­ic and Ocean­ic Sci­ences, on IndustryTap.com [link]. As she reports:

To keep the guess­work out of injec­tions, a Mem­phis-based com­pa­ny Christie Med­ical Hold­ings, has designed a device that can locate veins inside a person’s arm using harm­less near-infrared light.

Vein­View­er is a vein find­er that uses infrared light to look under the skin and projects an HD image of the veins onto the sur­face of the skin. There won’t be any miss when the doc­tors and nurs­es poke you with a nee­dle next time.

Lab Tech With Blood TestThe arti­cle also includes some absorb­ing videos as well. This exam­ple of an old prob­lem new­ly solved fas­ci­nates me. So many peo­ple I meet believe that if they are not pur­su­ing a uni­ver­sal cure for all can­cers (or what­ev­er their respec­tive indus­tri­al chal­lenge is), there is noth­ing new and excit­ing to work on. That’s just not true. The world’s pop­u­la­tion is beset by an unlim­it­ed num­ber of prob­lems. The inven­tors of this new process zoomed in on one and found an inge­nious solu­tion.

Con­sid­er the poten­tial impact of this sim­ple (per­haps not tech­no­log­i­cal­ly, but today what is?) yet ele­gant solu­tion. The Vein­View­er appears to me as an appar­ent break­through in over­com­ing the prob­lem of mak­ing the blood extrac­tion process sim­pler by find­ing the patient’s vein pre­cise­ly and quick­ly. Sure, in many cas­es the blood extrac­tion process is rou­tine, quick, and pain­less; but for those count­less oth­ers where it is not so straight­for­ward, the Vein­View­er will be wel­come news.

I’m cer­tain­ly not say­ing that all one has to do is find a prob­lem and a solu­tion will mag­i­cal­ly appear. Prob­lem solv­ing is not as intu­itive as it might seem. For many, it is down­right counter-intu­itive. It’s entic­ing to dream about a bet­ter solu­tion to a prob­lem and soon real­ize that you real­ly don’t under­stand what the prob­lem is. Imag­ine those peo­ple who, for 2,500 years, believed that blood­let­ting would cure many ill­ness­es. (The his­to­ry of blood and med­i­cine was nice­ly cap­tured by the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem in it spe­cial on “Red Gold” [link].) It took sci­en­tists such as Louis Pas­teur, Joseph Lis­ter, and Robert Koch to define the prob­lem of germs cor­rect­ly before blood­let­ting was aban­doned in the 19th cen­tu­ry.

Cer­tain­ly, one’s chances of solv­ing a prob­lem increase when one has deep indus­try or con­tex­tu­al expe­ri­ence — such as a nurse might have with blood extrac­tion. The dan­ger, of course, is that one can be so close to a prob­lem and so accli­mat­ed to the way it’s always been han­dled that any new think­ing on the mat­ter is elu­sive. How­ev­er, by blend­ing deep knowl­edge of a prob­lem with obser­va­tion of prac­tices in oth­er fields (and some imag­i­na­tion), solu­tions are more like­ly to evolve. But there is no sin­gle approach or process that will always yield a break­through.

Yet, I offer here my own six quick tips on how how to take a nag­ging, sys­temic and ram­pant prob­lem in the life of your cus­tomers and see whether it can become food for an inno­va­tion “break­fast”:

  • Start with a prob­lem. Define it as care­ful­ly and com­plete­ly as you can. Take time to think hard about the true nature of the chal­lenge. Use your knowl­edge of the field as a way to detail the scope of the prob­lem.
  • Try and look at the prob­lem with a beginner’s mind. Often, it is all your accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge that blocks the mind to new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Tem­porar­i­ly, try to for­get what you know and use your imag­i­na­tion to ask your­self how some­one from anoth­er field might address the prob­lem.
  • Try and under­stand the desired out­come first (not the prod­uct or tech­nol­o­gy or solu­tion). This is real­ly key: before you become mired in pro­duc­tion details or deliv­ery sys­tems, pic­ture what the solu­tion would look like to the end user.
  • Get help by shar­ing your think­ing wide­ly. As you start to envi­sion your “bet­ter way”, go out and dis­cuss your ideas with as many trust­ed asso­ciates as you can. Some will offer only blank stares. Some will put for­ward harsh cri­tiques. Learn what you can from these two groups while search­ng for respons­es from a third group — peo­ple who under­stand the prob­lem, see prospects in your ideas and have valu­able sug­ges­tions to make.
  • Be diver­gent in iden­ti­fy­ing as may paths as pos­si­ble to the desired out­come. As you are con­front­ed by crit­i­cisms or enhance­ments, it’s impor­tant not to own your orig­i­nal idea too strong­ly. Don’t make the mis­take of being so proud of your pro­posed solu­tion that you are defi­ant in accept­ing any­one else’s ideas. Be con­ver­gent in order to syn­the­sise pos­si­bil­i­ties into an inte­gra­tive solu­tion.
  • Pro­to­type, test, val­i­date, tri­al and error, repeat. A solu­tion is nev­er gen­uine until it can be shown to work repeat­ed­ly with­out sig­nif­i­cant fail­ures.

My most impor­tant word of advice is this: don’t fear prob­lems and try to avoid them. Prob­lems are tru­ly the soil from which oppor­tu­ni­ties grow.

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