“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.
The 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.