“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”
– Albert Einstein
My eldest daughter and son-in-law joined us for a good old-fashioned mid-west family supper last night: meatloaf, baked potatoes, and green bean casserole.
Son-in-law commented about how much he loved green bean casserole, but they seldom made it, and daughter said that the problem was that the recipe made a large amount because it called for two cans of green beans and a can of cream of mushroom soup. So they would end up either making large dish of the casserole and dealing with a large amount of leftovers, or making half a recipe and figuring out what to do with half a can of cream of mushroom soup. Sure, you can stick the remaining soup into a storage container and stick it in the fridge or freezer, but how often do you need half a can of cream of mushroom soup? (I’m not the only one to ask this question. While thinking about this, I did a web search and found this topic discussed on a web forum: “Half a can of cream of mushroom soup – Now what?“)
I’m sure I was wearing my epiphany face, and the light bulb was floating above my head, because he obvious solution struck me so forcefully and suddenly: soup companies should start making half-cans of their “ingredient” soups—the “cream of” soups (mushroom, chicken, celery), tomato—so smaller households could more easily make half-size recipes.
Are you listening, Campbell’s?
What other packaging changes could help the small household (singles and couples) demographic?
A huge challenge for entrepreneurs and small businesses is not becoming a commodity. The nature of the small business gig is that there are other small businesses in the same niche you are, and unless you make a conscious effort to differentiate yourself, you run the risk of becoming just another dish of vanilla ice cream.
Differentiation requires innovation: new and creative products, services, or business models. Sometimes innovative ideas come to us by accident (those “Eureka!” moments), but you can’t sit around waiting for lightning to strike. You have to start building time and space into your life and business for innovation.
Here’s one way: Schedule a personal “FedEx Day.” Reserve a 24-hour block of time on your calendar to solve a nagging problem or create a new product or service for your business. Some keys for making this successful are:
- Start off by committing to deliver something—a rough draft, a prototype, a preliminary model for a new line of business—at the end of the 24 hours (hence the “FedEx Day” title)
- Pick a project that you are fired up about for some reason—maybe it is something that has pissed you off for a while, or maybe it will give you the chance to finally learn and polish that new skill you have wanted to master, or maybe you just think it’s a completely cool idea.
- Pick an idea that’s aggressive enough to challenge you, but not so huge that you can’t create some sort of deliverable in a day. For example: Can you write a 300-page book in a day? No, but you can write a rough draft of a 20 page white paper (which may be the foundation for a book).
- Focus on NOTHING ELSE during those 24 hours. Give yourself breaks to eat, sleep, bathe, exercise, etc., but don’t work on other business tasks.
Whatever you come up with at the end of those 24 hours will still need some work, but you’ll have created something that helps de-commodify your business. (The FedEx Day concept was created by the Australian software company Atlassian, and Daniel Pink says a few things about this concept in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)
Wired Science shows how, quite often, solutions to problems already exist–in nature.
- The long, tapered nose of the Shinkansen, the high-speed trains of Japan, were modeled after the beak of the kingfisher, which drastically reduces the resistance as it dives into the water.
- Engineers have created material with a surface modeled after shark skin, which, because of its texture, inhibits bacterial growth. They are incorporating this anti-bacterial surface into medical devices.
When faced with a problem, try looking for inspiration in nature.
Steve Jobs has said that “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least one hundred times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’ve led, and how much you get it.”
I would add that it’s also about being sure you’re asking the right questions, solving the right problems.
Daniel Burrus illustrates this with a story about the pharmaceutical company Lilly.
A pharmaceutical company’s share price tends to be tied to promising new drugs in the pipeline. As a result, research is central to Lilly’s model and it retains thousands of PhD researchers to work on the molecular problems involved in bringing breakthrough pharmaceutical products to market.
The challenge: The company faced a dangerous deadline: a key patent would expire in August 2001, ending its exclusive patent protection on Prozac, a drug that was responsible for roughly one-third of annual sales.
A dramatic example of what might be at stake came in August 2000, when the company was stripped by a US court of almost three years of patent protection from generic competition. Lilly’s share price dropped by nearly one-third, erasing more than $36bn in its market capitalisation, in a single day.
In fact, it had already ramped up its research and development budget by 30 per cent in a quest to find the next blockbuster. But this was not enough to hire the additional 1,000 PhD researchers it estimated it would need to recapture the ground lost by declining Prozac revenues.
They came up with a great solution to this problem when they stopped asking themselves “How can we increase our R&D budget?” Lack of funding was not their real problem. Go see what they did.
…and maybe a good dose of sunlight can help defeat them.
Check out Gregg Fraley’s post about a menace to innovation, patent trolls.
“Innovation isn’t always about adding things. It’s asking yourself, what can I take away?” — Carmine Gallo, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success
The Make magazine blog points to an interesting hack of personal glucose meters by Yi Lu and Yu Xiang at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: They figured out a way to use them to measure chemicals other than glucose.
Li and Xiang reasoned that, if they could find a way to chemically couple a compound with glucose, i.e. a reaction that would produce one molecule of glucose for each molecule of the target compound, then a PGM could be used just as well to measure the target compound. Then they went and found a way to do that for, well, just about any compound a person might want to measure.
The process requires some fancy chemistry to raise a DNA fragment that will bind specifically to the target molecule, but once that’s done, the reagent can be produced and sold in bulk inexpensively. You would buy a reagent custom-designed for your analyte of interest, mix it with your sample, add a pinch of sugar (literally), and the sugar would be converted to glucose in direct proportion to the concentration of your target. Then stick a grocery store PGM in the vial and take a reading.
Yes. Good design can help create a workplace where ideas flow freely, where people from different areas and with different perspectives can meet, mingle, interact, and cross-pollinate their brains, and where innovative ideas germinate, take root, and thrive.
But according to designer Gina Berndt, the best office design in the world won’t make a significant difference without five other factors in place first. Continue reading
Speaking as a life-long resident of the Northern Great Plains, I like this idea:
A new paper from Microsoft Research The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing suggest a radical but slightly mad scheme for dealing with some of the more basic problems of the data centre. To put the problem into perspective it is worth mentioning the estimated 61 Billion kWh of electricity (3% of total consumption in the U.S) that servers consumed in 2006.
The basic idea is that chunks of silicon get hot as they compute and we sometimes need heat in offices and homes so why not make use of the heat to keep us warm. Instead of using dumb resistance to convert smooth flows of electricity into turbulent heat why not get a computation to do the same job. Small silicon heating elements, called Data Furnaces or DF, would replace resistive elements and provide data processing at the same time as heat. A DF would consist of between 40 and 400 processors and provide all the heat that a family home ever requires at around 40 to 50C. You would take delivery of a DF and connect it to the house air ducts, some power and of course, the internet. It also hasn’t escaped the researchers that using DFs would also create a more distributed cloud computing with the processing and storage located where it was most used.
This is an illustration of one of the principles that Dan Burrus talks about in his book Flash Foresight: go opposite. Most people think that the heat generated by data centers and server farms is a problem. Someone at Microsoft Research looked at it and asked “What if we view that heat as an opportunity or a resource instead of a problem?”