Innovators: Are you solving the right problem?

Innovators: Are you solving the right problem?

Hugh Moore the snake and the problem. The year was 1908 and Hugh was trying to make a buck with his “bright idea” – a vending machine that dispensed a drink of water for 1¢. But sales were slow – especially since people at that time could get water for free by using tin dippers at public drinking troughs.

As fate would have it, however, a national health crusade soon began warning against the dangers of the communal tin dipper. This made it very good timing for Hugh. In less time than you could say “entrepreneur” he realized he’d been trying to solve the wrong problem. It wasn’t water he should be selling, but the disposable drinking cup! Joining forces with a friend, Hugh took his newly hatched idea (and some handmade samples) to New York City and secured a $200,000 loan. Soon his cup runs out and his fledgling company branched into the soda industry and the rapidly expanding world of ice cream. (Does the name Dixie Cup mean anything to you?)

Hugh Moore was lucky. Early in the game, he was able to recognize that he was working on the wrong problem. Thousands of other aspiring innovators, however, are not as fortunate – nor as perceptive. They waste countless hours and money working on problems that wouldn’t exist if only they were able to step back and redefine their challenge. For example, is it another meeting you need or is it a better way of communicating what you want to say that eliminates the need for meetings? Good question. As Charles Kettering, the noted inventor once put it, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”

Multi-tracking to the max, few of us ever pause long enough to accurately define the problems that end up consuming us. How can we? We don’t have the time – or think we don’t have the time.

Is there a way out of this madness? Of course there is. And it begins by realizing that the answers, insights and breakthrough ideas you need will come more quickly when your question has been clearly defined. If not, you’ll end up like my good friend, Vinny, looking for his lost car keys under a street light. “Yo, Vinny,” I asked, “Why are you looking under the street light when you dropped them in the woods?” “I know, I know,” replied Vinny, “but there’s no light in the woods.”

This article is excerpted from BANKING ON INNOVATION, a 172-page workbook that accompanies Idea Champions’ nationally acclaimed creative thinking training.