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Viewing Problems as Gifts
From the earliest age, we are taught to avoid trouble. Our parents teach us to sidestep difficulties and dodge danger. As we grow up, we learn in school to circumvent trials and elude strife. The savviest entrepreneurs are experts at evading challenges and finding the easiest and fastest ways to get things done. Let’s face it, we all try to avoid problems like the plague. And when faced with a problem, most people will wring their hands and lament in frustration. Problems are just hindrances that obstruct our path and keep us from getting where we’re going. Or are they?
Here’s the thing about problems. Because problems irritate, they eventually push us toward efforts to solve the problem. Thanks to our creative, sentient brains, humans are prone to search for solutions. The goal of solving an existing problem is the same for all types of challenges even if the solutions come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and levels of complexity. When faced with a problem, people have used problem-solving strategies to create something new or innovate an existing idea in order to tackle these challenges. In this way, problems have led to inventions that have changed the world. Thus, problems are the pesky matches that spark creativity and spur innovation. In which case, shouldn’t every company be looking for problems within the business? And shouldn’t every aspiring entrepreneur be searching for problems that are just begging for a solution? That’s right, to change the world, we all need to be looking for problems.
Problems Kick-Start Innovation
Problems are gifts. The greatest inventions ever created evolved as the solution to a problem. As the idiom goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Problem: It used to be very difficult to move things from one place to another. The wheel was invented to make it easier to transport things and people over land. Problem: It was impossible to voyage far from shore when sailors used the stars to navigate. The compass enabled mariners to navigate safely far from land, increasing sea trade. This led to the “discovery” of the new world. Problem: It used to be very difficult to share information and disseminate knowledge. The mechanical printing press increased the speed with which books could be printed, which led to the fast and widespread dissemination of knowledge for the first time in history. Problem: It used to be hard to move goods upstream or up a river. This lead to the discovery of the steam ship that could push cargo against the current.
The list goes on and on. A list of items that were invented to solve a problem would surely be longer than the distance from the earth to the sun. The simple acknowledgement of a problem ignites a spark of creativity to find a solution. Problems thus kick-start innovation, which then leads to invention. An invention then spurs the creation of a business to sell that invention. The creation of a business then requires the hiring of employees to disseminate the invention, which thus creates jobs. Those jobs then pay the wages for employees to live. Our entire economy is built on a foundation of solutions to problems.
Many of the world’s most wealthy people have been and are inventors who solved a problem. As Manoi Arora explained in From the Rat Race to Financial Freedom, “Do not focus on money, instead focus on a problem that needs to be solved for the world. Money will follow you as a by-product.” Instead of just doing everything possible to ensure that a business runs smoothly, it might be equally advantageous to also look for and relish the challenges. And instead of an entrepreneur looking for a business to create, he should look for a problem to solve. A solution will likely create the opportunity for a business.
According to an article by Sarah Krasley in Fast Company, there are six questions to ask that will help to find and solve problems.
- “What could I look at in a new way?”
In 1849, Levi Strauss went to California during the gold rush wanting to capitalize on the opportunity. Rather than mine for gold, Strauss bought fabric and made tents in which the miners could sleep. The tents did not sell. Strauss looked at the fabric in a new way. He realized the sturdy denim tent fabric was rugged and durable… ideal for the miners to wear when kneeling to pan for gold. The tents were cut into pants, creating the first pairs of denim jeans. The rest is history.
- “What could I use in a new way?”
In 1943, Richard James, a naval mechanical engineer, was working on creating a meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships while at sea, when he knocked a sample coil off the shelf. Instead of it falling to the floor with a thud, he saw it coil and uncoil gracefully as it went down, and continued to “walk” away. He realized that the coil could be used in a new way as a toy for children. He spent $500 to manufacture the 80-foot wire coils and his wife came up with a name: Slinky. While looking to solve the problem of monitoring horsepower on a ship, he found a new way to use the wire coil. Over 250 million Slinkys have sold in the 75 years since and the Slinky is now in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
- “What could I re-contextualize in space or time?”
Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon Corp., was conducting a radar-related project using a new vacuum tube. While doing the experiments, he found that the chocolate bar in his pocket was melting. Wondering if that was a fluke, he put dried corn kernels into the machine and watched it pop into popcorn. Presto! By re-contextualizing how the vacuum tube was used with radar, he invented the microwave oven.
- “What could I change, in terms of design or performance?”
In the search for a stronger adhesive, Spencer Silver, a researcher at 3M Labs, created just the opposite. He actually invented an adhesive that was weaker. It stuck to objects but unfortunately could be pulled off with ease and without leaving a mark. That had no value to his search. Later, one of his colleagues spread some of the weak glue on small pieces of paper to mark pages his choir hymnal. This gave birth to a new idea: the Post-It Note. By changing the performance of the glue, a new product with a new purpose was born.
- “What could I connect in a new way?”
After inventing lightbulbs to harness the power of electricity, Edison went on to connect to that invention in yet another way. He realized that there needed to be a way to measure how much electricity each customer consumes when running electricity to businesses and residences in order to bill them. In 1881, Edison found the solution to the problem by inventing a Webermeter. “The Webermeter contained two or four electrolytic cells with zinc at both electrodes and a zinc sulfate solution. The zinc transferred from one electrode to the other at a set rate as electricity was used. The meter reader removed the electrolytic cells at each reading for weighing, replacing them with new ones.” In this way, he connected a new invention to an existing one.
- “What could I create that is truly new?”
Finding a solution to a problem with something that is completely new is a challenge but it can be done. Space rockets. The World Wide Web. Refrigeration. The wheel. It can be done, and has been done. It starts by observing the world and looking at things in a new way.
For example, in response to a need to protect against the many dreaded diseases carried by mosquitos, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded an invention called the Kite Patch. It is a small sticker that blocks mosquitoes’ ability to track humans for up to 48 hours, thereby protecting them from being bitten. While it is not a long-term solution, it is “effective for pregnant women who want to vacation in destinations where there are mosquito-related illnesses, such as recent Zika cases in Florida and Texas.
The Kite Fact Sheet indicates that:
“The Kite Patch utilizes our company’s worldwide discovery of compounds that disrupt mosquitoes’ ability to detect carbon dioxide, their primary method of hunting humans. Kite’s compounds also depress mosquitoes’ capacity to detect skin odors – their secondary method of hunting humans. Kite’s compounds are approved for human consumption by the U.S. FDA.”
For a budding entrepreneur, the best approach might be to look for the problems in an existing business or product or process. Ask “what problem is this company experiencing?” “Is there a better way to handle this service?” Or “how does this product fall short of my needs?”
The next time your company is faced with a problem or you are experiencing at problem at work, don’t lament. Celebrate. Consider it a gift… a golden opportunity to brainstorm new ways of doing things. Who knows? From there, you may just find a new idea or invention that may just change the world. Next week, we’ll consider the steps for problem-solving that helps turns yesterday’s problems into today’s presents.
Quote of the Week
“A successful entrepreneur can’t be afraid of problems, failures or setbacks. An initial setback can be a great opportunity to take a new and more promising approach to any problem, to come back stronger than ever.” John Roos
 January 1, 2013, By Manoi Arora, From the Rat Race to Financial Freedom, Jaico Publishing House, 1st edition; https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/list/11442559-manoj-arora?sort=popularity&utf8=%E2%9C%93
 February 3, 2012, By Sarah Krasley, Six Questions that Lead to New Innovation, Fast Company, https://www.fastcompany.com/1679231/the-6-questions-that-lead-to-new-innovations
 January 10, 2013, Emma Jacobs, The Story of the Slinky, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/the-story-of-the-slinky/266713/
 November 16, 2010, By Alyson Krueger, 15 Life-Changing Inventions that were Created by Mistake, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/these-10-inventions-were-made-by-mistake-2010-11#microwave-ovens-7
 November 16, 2010, By Alyson Krueger, 15 Life-Changing Inventions that were Created by Mistake, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/these-10-inventions-were-made-by-mistake-2010-11#post-it-notes-14
 Undated, By Martha Barksdale, 10 Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of), How Things Work, https://science.howstuffworks.com/10-inventions-thomas-edison.htm
 August 7, 2013, By Elise Hu, A Patch Designed to Make You Invisible to Mosquitos, All Tech Considered, National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/08/07/209575570/a-patch-designed-to-make-you-invisible-to-mosquitoes
© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.