Innovations Result from Solving Interesting Problems with Unique Insights

Innovations Result from Solving Interesting Problems by Mukesh Gupta

I read a blog post from Seth Godin titled – “Interesting Problems“. You can read it here.

I have always held the opinion that the ability to ask Interesting Questions is key when it comes to staying in control of your innovation process. After reading the post by Seth, I think, solving interesting problems is a great path that can lead to asking interesting questions, which in turn leads us to interesting insights and eventually interesting innovations.

So, the question that begs an answer is where and how can we find interesting problems?

Seth, in his blog defines interesting problem as below:

An interesting problem is one that’s never been solved in quite this way before. It’s not always going to work. The stakes are high. It involves coloring outside the lines.

The key word to focus here is “solved in this way before”. So by this definition, I would assume that almost all interesting problems can be solved in many different ways and might already have been solved in a specific way. For example, the problem of commuting from place A to place B has been solved many times over (walk, animal driven carriages, bi-cycles, motor-cycles, automobile, aircrafts, trains, buses, etc). But if I am able to solve this problem in a way not done so far – hyperloop, driver-less cars, flying cars, time travel, etc, then the problem becomes an interesting problem.

Also, we could even go within each of the earlier solutions, lets say, bi-cycle and find a unique way to solve the problem using a bi-cycle, would be an interesting problem. This is exactly what startups like Ono bikes are doing with their products, where they use design of the product as the way to differentiate and bring in the uniqueness into the category.

Some methods or tools that can help us come up this uniqueness could be:

Insight from being a User:

Most successful products come about as a result of someone trying to solve their own itch. They understand that none of the existing solutions solve the problem that they face in a way that would work best for them. So, they go about solving the problem in their own unique way, resulting in an innovation. Also, we realise that we are not so unique after all, once the product that was created to solve our own itch, goes on to solve the same itch for a whole lot of others as well. Apple products are a great example of this kind of innovation. Steve Jobs always wanted to create products that he would love to use.

Insight from being an observer:

The other way that we can gain insights is by being an observer. If we observe a set of population well enough to understand their world-view and then combine it with our world-view, there is a good chance that we can come up with something unique. This is where design thinking can help us a lot. It gives us the tools and the methodology to understand the world-views of our target customers and combine the observational insights, with our own unique strengths to come up with a unique point-of-view, that when developed can lead to interesting ideas and subsequently innovative product or service ideas. Most continuous improvements happen using this process. You launch a product or a service and look at how it is being used and based on the observation, continue to improve the products.

Insights from being a connector:

Another way that we can gain insights is by being able to connect the dots between two disparate things or problems or ideas and create a completely new insight, which can lead us to developing a new product or service. You connect an insight from the arts world and an insight from the world of architecture and cycling to come up with a hook to store/showcase your cycle, thereby solving the problem of space (architecture) and convert your cycle to a piece of art, to be showcased and spoken about with your friends. This by itself can create a completely different designs of cycles unlocking a completely new segment of cycle as a piece of art and therefore give significant pricing power to the cycle manufacturer. This is not a fictional idea but something that is already been done. You can read about this here.

Insights from Imagination:

Humans have the inherent ability to imagine stuff. We can always use the power of imagination to come up with interesting problems to solve in our own unique way. This is something that every one of the innovation practitioners should practice to get better at. We can practice this by using the power of questions that allow us or even force us to use our powers of imagination to come up with a different and unique perspective. Frank Sesno, in his book, Ask More, has a lot of insights about how to use the power of questions when it comes to letting our imagination fly. I strongly urge you to read it immaterial of what you do for a living. Asking interesting question is an art that each one of us can benefit from. An interesting use of imagination to come up with an insight that led to an innovation is when a call centre signed up with an artist to use their exclusive audio clips to be used as the tune that listeners hear, while being on hold. This single insight flipped the problem – Instead of complaining when put on hold, now, customers (most) were happy to stay on hold. You can listen about this on my podcast episode with Dan Gregory here.

Conclusion

Irrespective of what method we use to generate the insight that can lead us to a unique perspective when trying to solve an interesting problem, it is important to note that it is critical that we develop our point-of-view. It is this point-of-view that brings in the uniqueness. As Seth points out in his blog, this is not easy.

Most of the ideas from these insights might fail. Having a unique point-of-view doesn’t feel safe. But it is the safest thing if you really want to have an impact and innovate.

So, as innovation practitioners, we all need to be brave enough to not only have a point-of-view but to have one that is unique to ourselves.

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Elon Musk’s HyperLoop – Hope or Hype

At last Elan Musk unvieled his design for ultra speed travel system – HyperLoop. I think that the idea that he laid out in a 57 page document, is as good an idea as we might have currently.

However, After having read through the generic description, I think that this is a good start to the pursuit of sub-sonic ground transportation. However, in its current state, this concept is impractical due to the fact that the entire concept seems to have been designed with the Los Angeles to San Fransisco route in mind, which, is mostly without much curves in the route. I am not sure how many such routes exist across many different cities.

The design that has been shared has two options:

  • Capsules that can take about 48 passengers, with a capsule leaving every 2 minutes
  • Capsules that can take 3 fully sized passenger cars in addition to the passengers.

Now, Elan has already indicated that he is too busy to build the network himself and would like to see someone take this concept design, use open-source contributions and build the line. He also indicated that he  could build a working prototype in about  three to four years (if no one comes forward to build this).

Now, the design itself is of not much interest to me as I am sure that with any project that is as ambitious, this will not finish on time or on budget. However, what is interesting to me is the following:

  • There seems to be a growing need for significantly safer, faster, cheaper and greener travel options between pairs of cities (Los Angeles – San Fransisco; Delhi – Mumbai and similar) which have a lot of traffic between the cities.
  • The hype and interest that Mr. Musk was able to generate for the concept. There is a lot of learning for marketers here on how to build expectations and get media attention on their terms. This, I shall cover in a separate post shortly.
  • HyperLoop is conceptualized assuming that the current mode of transportations (Air, Rail, Road & Boat) have reached their limits and can’t be improved further to make them significantly safer, faster, cheaper and greener. I do think that this may not be the case. There could be potential ideas on how to make one of these transportation modes significantly to enable us to travel at about 600 – 700 kms an hour. Now, the question is if we are even looking at these options as well before we set out to create a totally new network which will not only cost billions of dollars but will take years or maybe even decades to complete. As I had mentioned in one of my earlier post, the solution proposed by Elon might look sexy and innovative, but, in my opinion, is not the best solution to the transportation challenge that we face – Significantly safer, faster, cheaper and greener alternative to the current options.
  • It would be interesting to watch this space to see if the idea of having an open-source concept development in such a large scale public project attracts interest. If there is significant interest in improving the concept and design from the community, this could also pave the way for a possiblity of a much more deeper engagement with the community in all future large scale public projects, which in a way could lead to a cheaper cost of the project and could also enable us to contribute in any which way possible. This will herald us in a true era of private-public partnership.

Having said all this, my opinion is that, this concept does fill me with hope that significantly safer, faster, cheaper and greener transportation options will be devised within this decade.

What do you make of this concept? Would you like to participate in an open-source project to enhance this design or even to work on creating ideas to significantly improve the current transportation options? Do let me know by commenting below or by tweeting to me at @rmukeshgupta.