“It is characteristic of scientific life that it is easy when you have a problem to work on. The hard part is finding your problem.”
Freeman Dyson, from Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Where do innovations come from? What is the genesis of the creativity that leads to their invention? When I first started writing about innovation I compared innovations to solutions, which themselves begin with problems. Without a problem, there is no solution, only a possibly interesting idea. However the analogy breaks down a little when we try and identify the comparable concept for innovation that problem was to solution.
One obvious starting point for innovations would be they begin with market and customer needs. Indeed many authors argue that. They would say that without those needs, there is no innovation, only a possibly interesting invention. But those authors are missing the point when it comes to creating new products and services that create and shape industries and markets.
Market and customer needs serve as a starting point for a very specific kind of innovation; sustaining innovations. This is the type of innovation that keeps products on the trajectory their customers demand. Although sustaining innovations can involve the development of breakthrough technologies, they always represent a change to an existing thing, an increment of a digit in a version number. They are never the basis for new enterprises.
New enterprises are not initially driven by customer needs. They are driven by a vision. Customer and market needs are discovered in tandem with the fulfillment of the vision using a process of customer development1. The focus of this article is where and how those creative visions originate.
In a recent interview, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, was asked whether Apple is trying to solve a problem when they come up with product ideas such as the iPod. He answered:
“There are different approaches – sometimes things can irritate you so you become aware of a problem, which is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging.
What is more difficult is when you are intrigued by an opportunity. That, I think, really exercises the skills of a designer. It’s not a problem you’re aware of, nobody has articulated a need. But you start asking questions, what if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful? This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device, rather than tactically responding to an individual problem. That’s the real challenge, and that’s what is exciting.”
One of the challenges in any creative activity, is finding and choosing ideas to pursue. Ive explicitly rejects obvious problems, which represent customer and market needs, as the starting point for ideas that could represent significant opportunities. Instead, he talks about exploration and about opportunities where no one has articulated any needs. Continue reading…