Want to solve a problem? Well you had better talk to someone about it!: My insights taken from the book: Where Good Ideas Come From, written by Steven Johnson…
I was strongly recommended this book by a successful entrepreneur, and I’m glad I took the time to read it as it has had a profound impact upon how I approach problem solving. It certainly isn’t a self help book, and it might not give you the magic formula needed invent the next big thing, but it does give a good blend of historical and behavioral analysis on what things tend to help cultivate ideas.
There are several good summaries of this book online, one of which that I particularly like, written by Phil Gyford, is linked here.
The Adjacent Possible: The idea creation aspect that really struck me, and for me feels like the most useful tool to engineer yourself a solution, is the idea of utilising the adjacent possible. This explains the rationale that inventions and innovation can only happen one step at a time, and on reflection it is very true. Google couldn’t have been created until the internet was created. Facebook’s success depended not only on the internet, but also on the creation of the digital camera, and it really started its rapid rise to prominence with the invention of the smart phone.
For me, making use of the adjacent possible is exploring the use of current new innovative ideas in alternative domains to what they were created for. An example given in the book is the use of old car tyres to create soles for sandals. This concept can be used for applications in all walks of life. For instance, Deliveroo is a very successful start up that has disrupted the fast food industry, could this delivery service model be used for other purposes? Some ideas that spring to mind are delivery of parcels and special delivery mail from logistics companies. Riders could collect from the delivery depot, and deliver on demand when you are at home, within 30 minutes. Will people pay the extra delivery fee to have their parcels delivered out of hours (something many logistics companies can’t do)? Not everyone will, but depending upon the urgency of a parcel, I’m pretty sure some people will.
Keeping on this train of thought, M&S are in the process of entering into a Joint Venture with Ocado. A deal that will be very intriguing to see how it plays out. Ocado are fantastic at delivering people’s weekly shopping, and they are looking at offering a ‘delivery within the hour’ service. However, no matter how brilliant new service, it will once again be focused on weekly shopping. Shopping that involves pre-planning from looking at the full week ahead.
M&S over the last couple of years have had a focused drive to open many convenience sized stores, and these stores very much focus on very fine quality, pre-prepared meals. Meals that are cooked at home with the little time or fuss, made from fresh ingredients, that everyone trusts. Could M&S successfully collaborate with Deliveroo, offering a ‘heat at home’ food delivery service? I wouldn’t bet against it..
The adjacent possible is like shuffling cards, until eventually you get two cards that pair up to offer an innovative idea that hasn’t yet been implemented. Simple!
A problem shared is a problem solved: The other key insight the book gave me was the environment in which most ideas are created, and most problems are solved. A profound discovery was made in the early 20th Century when a stop-motion study was performed in a research laboratory. The discovery was; that most ideas did not come from Eureka moments by individuals, but when one researcher spent time discussing their problems with another. Their fresh perspective often resulted in fruitful discussions and even more fruitful idea creations.
The effect of collaboration is all the more visible when you look at the history of innovation. In shear quantities, there have been many more key inventions to come from organisations that are not driven by financial incentives. Why is this? Surely inventors will be more keen to see their ideas realised if it will result in life changing financial fortunes? Of course it will, but where there are financial incentives, there are often patents, intellectual property, and closely guarded secrets. This process is not wrong, inventors need to be able to gain from their ideas and hard work. But it does show that collaboration is (far) more effective in creating ideas than financial incentives for individuals.
This was a bit of a revelation for me, previously if I had a problem that I was working on, I had a tendency to hatch down and go into individual problem solving mode. What I should be doing more of is talking to as many people about my problem as possible. This will give me new perspectives, and might introduce me to people who have similar problems (or even better; solutions).
This new mantra has led to the creation of a new blog category: ‘innovative problems‘, in which I will share a perspective upon my own and other peoples’ problems. As the reader, you may be able to empathise with these problems from an adjacent domain. Even better, they may inspire a brand new solution to a problem that you were previously unaware of. My first post of this type was created a few weeks ago: Digital transformation in the aerospace industry… Really?? and has resulted in several follow on discussions with people of how this concept can be developed. Without this post, these discussions would never have happened.
So in summary, shuffle the cards of possibility, and share your findings with all and sundry. Who knows, there might be an Einstein or Newton inside you somewhere…