There’s an old Warner Brothers animated cartoon about someone who was selling holes. He had a suitcase full of them. He would open up his suitcase, pull out a black circle, put it on the ground, and it would instantly be a hole. You could even put it on a wall and have an instant hole in the wall.
What a wonderful invention. No need to dig, drill, or chop if you wanted a hole. Just buy one already made! If you didn’t like where the hole was, you could just pick up that little black circle and put it somewhere else. If you wanted a larger hole, all you had to do was stretch the circle before you put it on the ground. It was the perfect solution.
In the cartoon, getting a hole was easy. All you had to do was buy one from the man with the suitcase full of holes. Unfortunately, in real life you can’t just go out and purchase a hole. If you want a hole, you have to buy a tool to make the hole, such as a shovel, drill, or pick axe. If I want a two-inch hole, I would purchase a two-inch drill bit. I don’t purchase the drill bit because I love the looks of the drill bit or admire the fine craftsmanship of the metal. I buy it because I want the hole it can make.
The point here is that consumers do not purchase products. Instead, they are purchasing the solutions that the product provides. I want a hole. This is the problem I am trying to solve. If I could buy one already made, like in the cartoon, I would. Since I can’t, I do the next best thing. I purchase the solution indirectly, by getting a drill bit. If I could find a different product that could make the hole faster, better, and less expensively, I’d buy it rather than the drill bit. Hence, it is not the drill bit I want, but the solution it provides. If I find a better solution, I will buy it instead.
We are in the middle of a series of blogs on how to think about ways to create new business innovations. One of the ways to innovate is by changing the way a consumer looks at solving problems. By creating and then getting people to accept a superior solution, you can be very successful.
There are two ways in which one can provide a solution that alters the way people solve their problems:
1) Find a new source for solving an old problem
2) Find a different problem for an old product to solve.
We will now look at each of these individually.
1) Find a new source for solving an old problem
Sometimes, I’ve run into people who feel that innovation needs to come up with a new solution for a new problem. After all, all the old problems already have solutions. Therefore new solutions need to tackle new problems. The problem is that there really aren’t that many new problems out there. Most everything is just a variation on a few key needs:
a) To have your basic needs met (food, clothing, shelter)
b) To feel loved, accepted, admired or appreciated
c) To be amused, entertained, pampered
d) To get the daily chores of life done efficiently, effortlessly, quickly and cheaply
e) To feel empowered, powerful, self-sufficient, needed, having a purpose in life
f) To eliminate barriers keeping you from living life to the fullest
g) and so on…
Therefore, instead of trying to find a new problem to solve, take an old problem that has already proven to create a large demand for a solution and just create a better solution than the one in place today.
When I say create a new solution for an old problem, I’m not saying to take the old solution and improve it. For example, taking a detergent and just making it a little stronger or a little cheaper or a little more concentrated is not the same as creating a new solution for the problem of cleaning. That’s just a better version of the old solution.
Allow me to illustrate. For years Proctor & Gamble has relied on better chemistry to create better ways to clean. Through chemistry, they could make their detergents stronger, more concentrated, and so on. But in the end, it was still basically the same solution to cleaning. Then, someone at P&G got the brilliant idea that perhaps there were ways to solve the problem of trying to make things clean that did not rely on chemistry. What if, instead of relying on chemistry, we tried to solve problems with physics?
Once P&G started looking at physics for a cleaning solution, they started coming up with brand new solutions to that age-old problem. There’s the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, the Mr. Clean Magic Reach, and the Swiffer pad. These are brand new categories for solving an age-old problem, because they looked in a new direction for the solution.
Another example would be Bausch & Lomb. They used to see themselves as in the lens business and spent their time trying to improve upon the design and manufacturing of lenses. Then, they realized that they were really in the vision correction business. The problem of improving vision can be solved in more ways than just with lenses. Therefore, Bausch & Lomb started looking for new solutions to their old problem that did not rely solely on lenses.
As a result, Bausch & Lomb came up with over-the-counter drops to put in the eye to improve vision, vitamin and mineral supplements that improve vision, prescription drugs to improve vision, medical devices and implants used in eye surgery, and a host of other things.
Recently, L’Oreal has teamed up with Coke to create a beauty beverage. The idea is that, instead of applying something to the outside of the body to make it more beautiful, why not work on the inside body chemistry to create a more beautiful complexion? The age-old problem was being attacked with an altogether different solution. In 2008 you will see these beverages sold in department stores at the beauty counter.
2) Find a different problem for an old product to solve
Sometimes innovation doesn’t require inventing anything new, per se. Instead, the innovation comes from finding a new solution for something that already exists. Arm & Hammer has made a fortune off continually finding new uses for plain old baking soda. People selling products with oats in them (Cheerios and Quaker Oats) now claim that their products solve another problem—fighting high cholesterol. Cheerios also claims to be a perfect starter solid food for your baby.
Back in the 1980s, when computers first started being pushed into the home market, they sold very poorly. The reason was that the problems they were claiming to solve did not seem too compelling. Salespeople would say that the computer could help you balance your checkbook, or store your recipes, or type letters. For the high price of a computer, the market did not see much of an advantage or value over current solutions for balancing the checkbook, storing recipes, or writing letters. But then a new solution appeared. The computer could help you send emails and search the internet. Now that was a solution worth buying a computer to solve. Sales suddenly started to skyrocket.
Avon has had great success selling its Skin So Soft moisturizer, once people discovered that it had a second solution as an excellent bug repellant. Pharmaceutical companies often discover that their prescription drugs can solve problems that they were not originally designed to solve, opening up new profit streams.
Mr. Carrier had a printing press that had trouble operating when the humidity got too high, so he invented a device to condition the air by taking out the moisture. He called it an air conditioner. As an interesting by-product, he noticed that it also made the press room cooler. The secondary solution of cooling air was more popular that the original solution of dehumidifying.
Innovation does not necessarily require finding new products to solve new problems. Sometimes, it is about finding new solutions for old products to solve. Other times it is about finding new ways to solve old problems that have been around a long time. Sometimes, it just takes looking at a problem from a different perspective or a little tweaking of what you already have or know to create something entirely revolutionary.
Sometimes, just trying to make a current solution better can backfire. Automobile tire manufacturers found a way to virtually double the life of its tires. As a result, they ended up selling about half as many tires, which put the entire industry into a tailspin. Companies like BF Goodrich found the need to diversify by finding new solutions for the chemistry knowledge used to make tires.