Myths of Innovation — Why problem definition is more important than finding solutions

  • Idea generation — The first part of this process is to generate ideas in bulk and think without constraints. Scott identifies these rules for exploring and creating the idea as:
  • Produce as many ideas as possible
  • Produce ideas as wild as possible
  • Build upon each idea
  • Self-knowledge — There must be self-knowledge that makes you aware of the environment or challenges that inspire the best results for your personality helps you make smart path choices.
  • Pivot or Persevere — You need to be intense in your approach at the same time be ready to step back and analyze the correctness of your path. It’s the combination of intensity and willingness to reconsider assumptions, minimizing the chances of following dead leads and maximizing the potential for finding a better path.
  • Exploring the problem space, more — The most critical path towards a successful innovation is how much have you explored the problem space. Problem-finding and excessive obsession with researching the problem space will provide the path towards success. And this is not new, especially to product managers, we have known this, the bigger question is do we follow this approach. Jumping to conclusions, inaccurate surveys compilations, wrong interpretation of customer expectations, and creating a problem that does not even exist plagues us to show success and work to just deliver results in short term. Good innovators or PMs are always working on hypothesis development and validation. Product sense is very important, and it includes much more than just finding and solving the issue.
  • Intuit is one of the great pioneers and their product management stories have personally inspired me to the core, especially their “take me home” initiative to learn how customers use their product. Scott Cook, CEO and Founder of Intuit, shows us how problem definition can lead to a success story. While working on the turbo tax, he figured the competition is not the software tax industry and it’s not about creating the best tax software in the market. According to Cook, the biggest competitor was pen and paper. Pens were resilient and solid substitutes and yet the entire industry overlooked the pen and paper. He creatively shifted the focus of his team to find a solution to replace pen and paper. Now the challenge was not to create the best software but to enable people to feel comfortable switching to computers to file taxes. This is all about creating mind shift change to define problems that really required the solution. This is what other inventors have done as well and this is the reason all great inventors were more than lucky. They picked real problems and worked on framing and defining problems to create a successful vision.
  • Another prime example is , while he is acknowledged for the development of the light bulb; he was very late to the party. So why has he been considered the great genius when he did not even start working on the problem first. His success also came from designing the problem differently. He thought of light bulbs as a system, asking questions like, “How do you get power to home to power the lightbulbs? And where does that power come from?”. Creating the lightbulb alone was useless and Edison knew why. Edison was unwilling to create great lightbulbs that no one would buy. The real task to him wasn’t about making a working lightbulb as we all had known him for. Instead, Edison’s framework of this problem was to make an electricity system in cities that can use to adopt his lightbulb
  • There is a similar story for PDA, “Personal Digital Assistants “. For decades, people talked about handheld devices that could manage your calendar, contacts, and personal information. In the 80’s and early 90’s HP, Siemens, Sharp, and Apple invested millions in new product development which all failed. It seemed like a personal assistant would not be developed until 1996 when Palm Pilot successfully overcame the challenge. PDA became a billion-dollar industry, influencing the design of phones and computers forever. The key success to Palm’s success was that they defined their challenge differently than other competitors. Instead of focusing on engineering constraints or loft dreams of revolutionizing the industry they focused on what customers wanted. Jeff Hawkins the CEO of the palm went to the people/users and started documenting their needs. He soon had this list
  • Fits in a shirt pocket,
  • Syncs seamlessly with PC,
  • Fast and easy to use
  • No more than $299
  • Culture — Innovations do change societies, but they must first gain acceptance by aligning with existing values. Japanese invented firearms before Europeans but their culture saw swords as the symbol of value, craftsmanship, honor, and respect. The goodness of innovation plays a critical role in the cultural adoption of products. Innovation can be good for you but how do you judge its goodness for others, industry, economy, society, and world. Ukraine war is a good example, of the use of drones to bomb cities on both sides of the border. How do we judge the goodness of drones in this case? Drones initially were thought to be for entertainment purposes, then we thought they will be good for logistical purposes and last-mile delivery. Now bombing cities with drones in the recent war between Ukraine and Russia, what is the score on the goodness scale here? People who support Ukraine in the war may say Ukraine is using drones to save themselves and hence are right, whereas Russia is wrong. This ethical dilemma on cultural adoption has played and will always play a critical role in the success of product developments.
  • Dominant design — This goes back to my point on change management. People once used to the idea of using one technology or using technology in a certain way, it’s very difficult to change the user behavior. Either your product should offer an improvement on the existing design or provide a significant upside to the user to switch. QWERTY keyboard design created by Christopher Sholes was developed so that the mechanical keys on the typewrite won’t Jam. He did not envision millions of people and future designers sticking to QWERTY. Now changing to another format is very tough, there has to be a valid reason for me to switch because I will have to learn the whole new typing style.
  • Inheritance and Tradition — When you confuse your comfort for a belief as it is good. US measurement system is a typical example of a tradition and inheritance, why learn a new system even though 190 out of 193 countries are using a metric system. The strongest push in the U.S. came at the start of the 20th century, Alexander Graham Bell, and other notables testified at congressional hearings on metric conversion. The head of the new Bureau of Standards put forth the metric system as a vital national interest. But charges of elitism and wasting money came from a public that increasingly believed the U.S. should be the leader in global affairs and not just another follower. An interesting fact is NASA lost a $300 million Mars orbiter because one equation failed to convert units from the US to English units. Due to this $300 million orbiter was sent on a certain path of destruction.
  • Political and economic — Will you hurt someone with your invention. Once an inventor has resolved the issue does not mean that society will accept the solution. For society, innovation is always associated with feeling good or bad. The effect of these feelings can either empower or reject your authority. For example, when Galileo claimed the sun was the center of the solar system, he faced persecution from the Church and the western world. It was not the idea that probably caused this outrage. The church never cared about what was the center of the solar system. They were not angry because Galileo suggested Earth rotated around the Sun, they were angry because their authority was challenged. So innovative ideas are not rejected based on their merit, they are rejected based on how they make people feel.

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I am a product manager by profession and a technologist by nature. A passionate writer and author.

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Nikhil Varshney

Nikhil Varshney

I am a product manager by profession and a technologist by nature. A passionate writer and author.

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