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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What Drives Innovation

Every leader wants to build a culture of innovation in their respective organisations. There is enough written about how one can go about building a culture of innovation. I have myself written about it as below:

As atoms are the most fundamental unit of matter, imagination, more importantly, the ability to imagine is the most fundamental unit for all innovations. The ability to imagine is an innately human trait, which most of us forget how to access by the time we reach our adulthood and late in our careers. What we need is something to enable us to let our imaginations sour. This role is perfectly done by questions.

If someone asks us a question that requires us to imagine a different reality, it suddenly becomes much easier to tap into our inherently human trait and ride our imagination. So, in a way, questions, more specifically, interesting questions are what drive innovations.

No innovation can happen without someone asking an interesting question. So, if we want to create a culture where innovation thrives, we need to create an environment where not only is it ok to ask interesting questions but we have to actively train our employees on how to ask these interesting questions.

It is in this endeavour, that I stumbled onto the book – “Ask More” by Frank Sesno. I wanted to learn more about asking questions. Frank’s book is probably the best resource that i have come across to learn the different kinds of questions and how to ask them.

Of all the different kinds of questions that he talks about, the ability to ask questions that allow us to be creative, through the power of our imagination, are vital from an innovation stand point.

Questions that Lead to Creativity:

He shares

Creativity questions encourage people to think about things that go beyond the familiar. They encourage originality and risk taking. They ask people to consider new ideas and imagine new scenarios. They put us in the future tense. They push boundaries. Creativity questions ask people to imagine ambitiously and think independently.

There are different types of questions here.

Questions that help us Dream

There are questions that enable us to dream about the kind of future reality that we want to create.

  1. What if there were no limits?
  2. What is your dream?
  3. What would you do if you knew for certain that you would not fail?

These questions create the frame within which subsequent thinking will take place. So, it is important to create the right frame.

Questions that help us Become Someone Else

Then there are questions that explore you to role-play and put yourself in someone else’s shoes:

  1. What would you do if you were the CEO/Customer/Partner/POTUS or Prime Minister of India?
  2. What would Jeff Bezos do?
  3. What would apple do in this situation?

These questions enable us to look at the same situation from a different perspective and this has the potential to create great insights, which would otherwise not be available to us.

Questions that help us time travel

Then there are questions that allow us the ability to travel back and forth in time.

  1. Imagine you have succeeded beyond imagination. What happened? What are you doing? What is it like? What fuelled your success?
  2. Imagine you have failed. What happened? What brought your downfall? What assumptions did not pan out as you had expected?

These questions have enabled many teams to avoid costly mistakes in their projects.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to again re-iterate the importance of being able to ask interesting questions, that enable us to imagine future reality. If we want to create a culture of innovation, we should not only create an environment where our teams are continuously learning and getting better at asking interesting questions and at the same time are getting better at using these questions to imagine a much more creative future.