When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, Einstein said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it.
You’ve probably used a handy invention called “coffee sleeves” if you’ve ever visited a coffee shop. These insulators make it bearable to hold that super-hot cup of coffee. Jay Sorensen is the inventor of the coffee sleeve. He came up with this idea when he was driving his daughter to school when he spilled a cup of coffee in his lap, because the coffee was too hot to hold.
It’s common wisdom that innovative ideas must be original, new, and a flash of creativity out of the blue. But this belief is a real obstacle to creativity.
Jay Sorensen didn’t create the coffee sleeve because he was setting out to innovative. He needed to solve a problem.
Innovation is not about creating something from nothing.
There are problems everywhere, as long as you pay attention to them. Lots of great inventions come from the daily problems people encounter.
When it’s raining and you don’t want to wear clunky, unfashionable rain boots – but you don’t want to get your feet wet? There go the Dry Steppers. You want to bring a water bottle to work, but the shape of normal water bottles don’t work with your briefcase? Someone came up with the idea of Letter paper shaped bottles.
True breakthroughs happen when you notice problems and create solutions. Problems stimulate you to really think about what can be improved. Observing problems is a good start.
Different Levels of Problems
There are different types of problems. Some are easier to stimulate innovative ideas, some are more difficult. Finding out the type of problem you have identified helps you to know your effort needed to create new ideas.
Type 1: Problems with Good Solutions Available
Difficulty Level: ★★★
Some problems already have good solutions available. For example, in hot and humid climates, people have adjusted to the use of fans and air conditioning. It would take a huge breakthrough in order to think of a solution superior to what’s already available.
So, a brand-new invention to address hot climates would be a very difficult innovation to accomplish. There is no clear need for a new solution.
Type 2: Long Existing Problems with No Solutions Yet Found
Difficulty Level: ★★
A more intermediate scenario is when a problem has existed for a long time, and no solutions have yet emerged.
These intermediate problems are often very hard to fix because of their scale or complexity. For example, poverty is a huge problem, and everyone knows that. But nobody has “fixed” it probably because it’s hard to fix, and there are limitations on the resources to fix it.
When anything is possible, it’s difficult to know when and how to kick it off. But this situation can also be positive. With intermediate problems, you have no restrictions, and so you’re free to try out creative ideas. Take this as a source of inspiration. You might not have the resources to apply your solution right now, but that shouldn’t hold you back. Think of a solution and try it out when the timing is right.
Type 3: Problems That Have Flawed Solutions Available
Difficulty Level: ★
Finally, there are easy innovations. These include problems that do have available solutions, but those solutions are flawed. You can take what’s already there and improve on it. For example, the smartphone is in many ways an improvement of the original cell phone; it has added a lot of new functionality to an old technology.
While you might feel inspired to tackle a 3-star problem, you might try to kickstart your innovation with an 2-star or 1-star problem first.