Imagine you are on your way to the office on a winter morning. When you left home, it was sunny outside. You put your jacket on, took your briefcase and were ready to go. Your commute starts with a bus or a train ride, but the last mile you usually walk.
This morning, as you were half-way through your walking distance, it suddenly started raining. Serious rain, with heavy, thick drops. You immediately went seeking the nearest store or bus stop to hide in, hoping the rain would stop in just a few minutes. 3 minutes later, you realize this isn’t going to happen. Unfortunately, in the case of your morning meeting – it is going to happen, and it’s a big one which you must attend and arrive on time too.
You try hailing a cab, but they’re all magically gone – as they always are when it’s raining.
With no other alternatives, you realize you need to continue walking (or maybe running) towards the office, despite the rain.
In your attempt to remain as dry as possible, you use whatever you can to protect you from the rain: you walk closer to the buildings next to you, you raise your jacket’s collar and you put your briefcase over your head, bending down to protect your face from the rain.
You get to the office on time, as dry as you could have, but that isn’t dry at all. You are soaked wet.
From Problem Solving to Invention
The problem you needed to solve was complex: you were outside when it started raining, couldn’t wait for the rain to stop and wanted to remain dry.
You used whatever was available for you to solve it: buildings, your jacket, and your briefcase. That’s what creative people do – they use things available for them in various ways to solve problems. Limited by circumstances though, even the best solutions are far from ideal – as was the case in our little story.
Technology changes that. With technology, you can truly create from nothing, unlimited by what you already have. But since technology is so new in the evolution of human thinking, it is much easier for all of us to still think from what we have, instead of truly creating from nothing.
Creating from nothing is happening with any real invention, the thing is that with technology products everything is a new invention.
It means that as product leaders, thinking in terms of what we already have – which is a natural human tendency – becomes a serious limitation that we must overcome to succeed. In our little story above, it could have made the difference between running with a briefcase over your head and inventing the umbrella.
When I’m consulting product teams, I often hear suggested solutions that are relying on current product capabilities. If these are the right solutions – ones which really solve the problem at hand and do not cause other problems as they do so – that’s great. If these are informed compromises, that’s also fine, but I usually see the compromise happening too soon in the process. It’s typically so soon, that you don’t even know what is the ideal solution and what are you compromising for (and why).
How do you get out of this trap?
Here are 3 methods:
Method 1: Forget What You Already Know
Easier said than done, but this is something you can train yourself to do. Switch your point of view from the white box paradigm – where you know the product in and out, to black box – where you know nothing about the product, only about the function that it has in your larger universe.
One way to do so is to ask yourself all the time – would an outsider know this piece of information? If the answer is no, don’t use it when you are thinking about the right solution. You can use it later to refine the selected solution, or as a parameter in your decision making (maybe it’s a good trade-off to make – use what you already have and deliver something quickly, or perhaps the complexity of an existing capability impacts the effort estimations of the new solution, etc.).
Method 2: Start With a Bad Solution and Improve
I learned this method from listening to Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO. When Airbnb wanted to reinvent the hosting experience – specifically the check-in part, they wanted to stretch themselves beyond what they know. They felt a 5-star experience wasn’t enough.
So they started with imagining what a 1-star check-in experience would look like. It can be something like you get to the address and there is no-one there. You knock and they don’t open, until you have to file a complaint and get your money back. A 3-star check-in experience would be if they arrive 20 minutes late. A 5-star would be if you arrive, they are there, they open immediately and let you in.
But they wanted to stretch it, to see how far can they go. So a 6-star check-in experience would be that they let you in, they introduce themselves, welcome you to their house, and show you around. There is a small welcome gift on the table, toiletries in the bathroom and cold beverages in the fridge.
In the 7-star check-in experience, you walk in and the host says: “Welcome. Here’s my full kitchen. I know you like surfing. There’s a surfboard waiting for you. I’ve booked surfing lessons for you. It’s going to be an amazing experience. By the way here’s my car. You can use my car. And I also want to surprise you. There’s this best restaurant in the city of San Francisco. I got you a table there.”
It’s almost addicting, right? Chesky continues so I’ll let you read it in his own words:
“So what would a ten star check in be? A ten star check in would be The Beatles check in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindfuck experience. So what would 11 star experience be? I would show up at the airport and you’d be there with Elon Musk and you’re saying, “You’re going to space.”
The point of the process is that maybe 9, 10, 11 are not feasible. But if you go through the crazy exercise of keep going, there’s some sweet spot between they showed up and they opened the door and I went to space. That’s the sweet spot.“
The details matter. Immerse yourself in the solution, to be able to imagine a truly great one. And then go back to what’s feasible. I assure you you’ll get to a very different feasible than the one you started with.
Method 3: Call a Fairy or Your Favorite Wizard
This is my favorite method, but not everyone likes it. It’s a simple one, actually a combination of both previous methods.
To use it, simply ask yourself: “if a fairy was here, how would she solve it?”. I like it because it forces you to think entirely about what the customer/user would like to have in this case and imagine everything is possible.
For example, if you are building an email app, your users might want you to use mind-reading capabilities (but with advanced privacy settings!) and simply write the email for them as they are thinking it.
While this is not 100% possible, Google is getting pretty close with its smart compose feature. I’m not sure they used this method exactly, but I’m sure they asked themselves what would an ideal email app do, and strived to get there.
So, next time you are thinking about a solution, try one of these methods. Find the places where you are thinking from the solution instead of from the problem, and change it. I’m sure you’ll get to wonderful solutions, ones which are truly creative and innovative and solve your customers’ real problems. Oh, and you’ll also enjoy the ride.