You Can’t Develop Solutions Unless You Realize You Got Problems: Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem finding plays an important role in creative thinking

Problem finding is one of the most significant parts of problem solving. However, it tends to be an underappreciated skill. Many managers naively consider it strange to encourage employees to look for problems at work: “Why look for new problems when we’ve got no resources to work on ones we’ve already identified?”

Many courses and books on problem solving and creativity overlook problem finding. Many educational resources tend to assume that problem solving really begins only after problems have been identified.

Problem-identification lead to the invention of the ballpoint pen

Invention of the Ballpoint Pen by Biro Brothers The story of the invention of the ballpoint pen demonstrates the importance of problem finding. Had the inventors not recognized a problem with the existing writing instruments of their day, they would not have developed their invention.

In the 1920s, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro spent much time proofreading and checking for errors in others’ writings. To communicate these errors to the authors, Laszlo could not use pencils because their impressions fade quickly. He tried using a fountain pen, but the ink from the fountain pen dried slowly and often left smudges on paper.

Laszlo observed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly and left the paper smudge-free. When he tried using that ink in his fountain pen, however, the ink was too viscous to flow into the tip of the fountain pen.

Laszlo then collaborated with his chemist-brother Gyorgy Biro to invent a new pen tip consisting of a ball that was enclosed within a socket. As the ball rolled inside the socket, the ball could pick up ink from a reservoir or cartridge and then continue to roll to deposit the ink on the paper. The Biro brothers thus invented the ballpoint pen. The company they created is now part of the BIC Company. The ballpoint pen continues to be called a ‘Biro’ in some countries.

Often, creativity is the outcome of discovered problem solving

Greek Philosopher Plato famously wrote in The Republic, “Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

One reason we fail to identify problems is that we do not stop to think about improving various situations that we encounter. Very often, these problems are directly in front of us; we need to consciously identify them and convert them into opportunities for problem solving. Instead, we tend to take inconveniences and unpleasant situations for granted and assume they are merely “facts of life.”

  • The grain mill was not invented until somebody in antiquity identified the ineffectiveness of two hours of pounding grain to make a cup of flour.
  • The world’s first traffic lights were installed around the British Houses of Parliament in London only after somebody thought of the problem of traffic congestion. In other words, up until the problems from congestion were identified in the 1860s, no one attempted to systematically consider how the problem might be solved.

James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine

  • James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine after discovering an interesting problem with the Newcomen steam engine. In 1763, when Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, he was assigned to repair a model of a Newcomen engine for a lecture-demonstration. Watt initially had difficulty getting the Newcomen engine to work because its parts were poorly constructed. When he finally had it running, he was surprised at its efficiency. Watt observed that the engine was constantly running out of coal because the constant heating and cooling of the cylinder resulted in a large waste of energy. Watt then devised a system whereby the cylinder and the condenser were separate. This led to his invention of the “steam engine” (or, more precisely, the separate-condenser steam engine.)
  • As I mentioned in a previous article on the opportunities in customers’ pain points, crispy potato chips were invented only when Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs attempted to appease a cranky customer who frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. Decades later, Laura Scudder invented airtight packaging for potato chips only after becoming conscious of customers’ complaints that chips packaged in metal containers quickly go stale and crumble during handling.

Finding and defining a creative problem

If problems are not identified, solutions are unlikely to be proposed

It pays to keep your eyes open and look at inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Don’t ignore these merely as facts of life.

Curiosity, intrigue, and motivation influence problem finding (and problem solving.) One of the easiest ways to develop your skills in problem finding is to ponder at anything around you and wonder why those gadgets and contraptions were ever invented. Analyze carefully and you’ll learn that the first step taken by the inventors of these objects was the identification of the problems the objects were designed to solve.

When you look around various objects in your life, think about what life was before these objects were invented. What problems could these inventions have solved? Why was the zipper invented? What problems motivated Bjarne Stroustrup to create C++? What was internet search like before Google? How did commerce transpire before the advent of coins and bills and money?

Some people make a career out of problem finding. Managers who want to know if their organizations are running efficiently frequently hire consultants to look for problems that managers do not know exist in their businesses.

And finally, if you want to become an inventor or an entrepreneur, try to start with problems you already have in your work or in your life. Ideally, identify problems shared by a large number of people to increase the probability that your inventions will be put in widespread use.

Idea for Impact: A creative solution to a problem often depends on first finding and defining a creative problem. Very often, the solution to a problem becomes obvious when the problem has been properly identified, defined, and represented.

Serendipity and Entrepreneurship in the Invention of Corn Flakes

In previous articles about Johnson’s Baby Powder and Picasso’s Blue Period, I discussed serendipity as a rich phenomenon that is central to entrepreneurial and artistic processes. In this article, I will discuss another case study of ideas born by chance and reinforced by casual observation and customer input.

One of America’s Favorite Cereals was Invented by Fortuitous Accident

Will Keith Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1894 at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan Will Keith Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1894 at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Will worked there as an assistant to his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and helped research patients’ diets.

One day, while making bread dough at the sanitarium, Will accidentally left boiled wheat sitting out overnight unattended. When he returned to roll the wheat into dough, he discovered that it had dried out and was flaky. Interested to see what would happen, Will passed the flaky dough through the bread rollers and baked them to create a crunchy snack. He seasoned the flakes with salt and fed them with milk to the sanitarium’s patients. The wheat flakes were an immediate hit. Indeed, after some patients left the sanitarium, they ordered Kellogg’s flakes by post.

Will Kellogg’s Entrepreneurial Ingenuity

Serendipity and Entrepreneurship in the Invention of Kellogg Corn flakes Will Kellogg then tinkered his recipe for wheat flakes and ultimately settled on using corn in place of wheat as the flakes’ main ingredient.

In 1906, Will Kellogg launched “The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company.” In addition to inventing corn flakes, Kellogg had a genius for business and marketing. He was a pioneer in testing markets, sampling products, using multi-color print advertisements, and developing innovative marketing campaigns.

Kellogg was keen on using slogans to promote his company’s products. In 1907, he introduced a marketing campaign that declared, “Wednesday is Wink Day in New York.” Every woman who winked at her grocer on a Wednesday received a free packet of corn flakes. Corn flakes sales skyrocketed.

Will Kellogg was also a prominent philanthropist and, in 1934, started the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

The company Will Kellogg founded eventually became Kellogg Company, a prominent cereal and convenience foods multinational.

Picasso’s Blue Period: A Serendipitous Invention

The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period)

In October 1900, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved to Paris and opened a studio there at age 19. Shortly thereafter, Picasso was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. The Art Institute of Chicago remarks,

Picasso’s Blue Period … was triggered in part by the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas in 1901. The works of this period are characterized by their blue palette, somber subject matter, and destitute characters. His paintings feature begging mothers and fathers with small children and haggard old men and women with arms outstretched or huddled in despair.

Perhaps Picasso’s Blue Period is an instance of serendipity. Legend has it that one day Picasso had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy.

In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, thanks to serendipity, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome. As such serendipity goes, the confluence of many factors helped Picasso initiate a new art genre showcasing themes of alienation, poverty, and psychological depression that, though now considered marvelous, then kept potential patrons away.

How Johnson’s Baby Powder Got Started: Serendipity and Entrepreneurship

1921 Advertisement: Johnson's Toilet and Baby Powder - Antiseptic Borated Talcum Powder

Making Fortunate Discoveries Accidentally

Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist famous for his 1922 discovery of penicillin, once said, “Have you ever given it a thought how decisively hazard—chance, fate, destiny, call it what you please—governs our lives?”

Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something that, post hoc, turns out to be valuable.

'Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science' by Royston M. Roberts (ISBN 0471602035) The history of science is replete with such serendipitous discoveries. “Happy findings” made when scientists accidentally discovered something they were not explicitly looking for led to the discovery or invention of the urea, dynamite, saccharin, penicillin, nylon, microwave ovens, DNA, implantable cardiac pacemaker, and much more … even the ruins of Pompeii and Newton’s law of universal gravitation. (I recommend reading Royston Roberts’s Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science)

In each of these instances, the crucial role of discovery or insight occurred in accidental circumstances. Therefore, we must understand serendipity’s role in terms of the circumstances that surround it.

Serendipity has also played a pivotal role in establishing many successful businesses. In fact, serendipity is a rich idea that is very central to the entrepreneurial process. As the following case study will demonstrate, many experimental ideas are born by chance and are often reinforced by casual observation and customer input.

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident In 1885, entrepreneur Robert Wood Johnson was deeply inspired by a lecture of Joseph Lister, a British surgeon well known for his advocacy of antiseptic surgery. Johnson started tinkering with several different ideas in an effort to make sterile surgery products.

A year later, Johnson joined his two brothers to establish Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their first commercial product was a sterile, ready-to-use, medicated plaster-bandage that promised to reduce the rate of infections after surgical procedures. As business developed, the Johnson brothers compiled the latest medical opinions about surgical infections and distributed a booklet called Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment as part of their marketing efforts.

Within a few years, a doctor complained to J&J that their bandages caused skin irritation in his patients. In response, J&J’s scientific director Dr. Frederick Kilmer sent the doctor a packet of scented Italian talcum powder to help soothe the irritation. Since the doctor liked it, J&J started to include a small sample of talc powder with every package of medicated bandages.

By 1891, consumers discovered that the talc also helped alleviate diaper rash. They asked to buy it separately. The astounded J&J’s leadership quickly introduced Johnson’s Baby Powder “for toilet and nursery.” Over the years, J&J built on that huge initial success and created the dominant Johnson’s Baby product line with creams, shampoos, soaps, body lotions, oils, gels, and wipes.

J&J Got into the Sanitary Protection Products Business Too by Accident

Serendipity also played the key role in establishing J&J’s sanitary napkin business. In 1894, J&J launched midwife’s maternity kits to make childbirth safer for mothers and babies. These kits included twelve “Lister’s Towels,” sanitary napkins to staunch post-birth bleeding. Before long, J&J received hundreds of letters from women who wanted to know where they could buy just the sanitary napkins. In response, J&J introduced disposable sanitary napkins as part of its consumer products line. J&J thus became the first company in the United States to mass-produce sanitary protection products for women.

Book Summary of Nassim Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”

'Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (ISBN 1400067936) In “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets,” Lebanese American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses cognitive biases and irrationalities that drive human behavior and decision-making.

Principal ideas:

  • Luck, chance, and randomness play a larger role in the happenings of the world than most people acknowledge.
  • People tend to justify random outcomes as non-random and rationalize chance outcomes as results of deliberate actions.
  • Correlation does not translate to causation.
  • People tend to assume patterns in their analysis even when such patterns do not exist.
  • Variations in performance and ability can cause disproportionate rewards, difficulties, punishments, or returns.