Don’t Focus on the Problem, Innovate past it

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by Paul Sloane

Two groups of engineering students were given a similar task – to design a bicycle rack for a car. The first group was shown an existing but poorly designed roof rack for bicycles. They looked at all the issues with the current design and then set out to come up with something better. The second group was not shown the ineffective roof rack; they were simply told to design a really good bicycle rack.

The second group came up with much more elegant and effective designs. The first group focused on the problems with the existing design and that constrained their thinking.

The study was carried out by researchers David Jansson and Steven Smith and is mentioned in David Niven’s book, It’s Not About the Shark. The title of the book refers to the problem which the then unknown director Steven Spielberg had in 1974 while shooting Jaws. The movie script involved many scenes showing a monster shark but the mechanical model shark they used had recurring technical faults and kept failing. The movie was running well behind schedule and ahead of budget. The problem was the shark which just would not work.

Spielberg did some lateral thinking. He removed the shark from all the initial scenes and inferred its presence with the brilliant musical theme written by John Williams. Moviegoers found that what they imagined beneath the water was remarkably frightening. Critics and audiences raved about the film which kick-started Spielberg’s rise to stardom.

When we are confronted with a problem we tend to focus all our efforts on the features of the problem rather looking at the entire situation and the opportunities it offers. Focusing on the problem limits our possibilities for conceiving more radical ideas.

When Travis Kalanick could not get a taxi in Paris in 2009 he thought about the issue. Most of us would have asked, ‘How can we get more taxis?’ He ignored the taxi shortage, looked at the bigger picture and asked a different question. ‘What if we could harness the capacity of all the drivers in Paris who would give me a lift for payment?’ He founded Uber.

Every problem is an opportunity for innovation. Don’t get sucked into the detail of the problem. Think laterally and bypass the problem altogether.

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