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Section 1. Problems as invitations

Section 1. Problems as invitations Problems and solutions > Problems as invitations

9. Problems and solutions

Living alone in a wooden townhouse miles from London, Isaac Newton worked endless hours alone by candlelight. Stacks of papers, journals, and notes from experiments littered the small manor that was his home. Beyond explaining gravity, inventing calculus, and revolutionizing science, his true passion—which fueled his pre-electric age all-nighters—was turning lead into gold.[*] This 18th-century search for the philosopher's stone—a method for changing one element into another—occupied many great minds including Bacon, Boyle, Locke, and Leibniz, and was at the time believed to be the greatest technological challenge of the age. One can only guess at how many collective months these most brilliant minds wasted chasing the impossible. For all his genius, Newton may as well have been banging his head against the wall (perhaps preparing him for getting hit by apples), as the laws of physics we know today render his work an obvious waste of time (see Figure 9-1). [Section 1. Problems as invitations]

[*] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/newton/alch-newman.html

[Section 1. Problems as invitations] However, simply because the laws of physics today suggest Newton was wrong doesn't mean he was. A breakthrough in our understanding of energy, matter, or particle physics could reveal Newton was right about the possibility of the philosopher's stone.

Figure 9-1. This painting of Newton, by William Blake, shows him as a lost hero. Blake felt that Newton's attempts to solve everything through science and alchemy were misguided.


Some say all innovation is a leap of faith, but the sensible (or at least those with mortgage payments) wonder about this: can you know when you're chasing the equivalent of a holy grail, a philosopher's stone, or a perpetual motion machine? Before entrepreneurs and inventors bet their lives on an idea, they want to know that it's achievable. And if it is, do they possess the talents and passions required to make it happen? If Newton, one of the great minds of history, can wander for years down an innovator's dead end, how can a merely bright mind expect to filter the possible from the impossible? The only hope for answers is to look past this mythology—problem solving is not nearly as important as problem finding.

Newton's mistake was the problem he chose, not his methods for solving it. Problem finding—problem solving's shy, freckled, but confident cousin—is the craft of defining challenges so they're easier to solve. Newton's choice set him up to fail before he began, and many bright would-be innovators make similar mistakes: they fail to spend enough time exploring and understanding problems before trying to solve them.

1. Problems as invitations

The word problem often means something bad, as in "Houston, we have a problem" or "I have a problem with your tuna salad," but successful innovation often involves more attention to problems than solutions. Einstein once said, "If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it," a gem of insight lost in the glory of what he achieved on that 20th day. It's counterintuitive because, on the surface, problems rarely need help to be understood. For example, if Bob's pants are covered in flaming napalm, or Jane is being chased by rabid zombie Rottweilers, do they really need to sit and ponder before taking action? In everyday experience, a problem is something we want to get rid of quickly; for example, we know that Bob should rip off his pants, throw them at the Rottweilers, and whisk Jane away, with pants-free charm, for a heroically romantic afternoon.

But the challenges innovators choose have no known solutions or aren't believed to be important at all. No one asked Galileo to explain the solar system, Engelbart to invent the mouse, or Bell to create the telephone. They saw unidentified problems in the world and dedicated themselves to defining and solving them. Einstein's motivation for developing his special theory of relativity, while working as an unknown patent clerk, wasn't that his girlfriend thought it'd be cute. Nor did his boss threaten to fire him if he didn't win the Nobel Prize. Being curious of mind, he followed his own logic and asked questions others were unwilling to ask, and when he saw no answers, he simply set about finding his own.

Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions. There are many ways to look at any problem, and realizing a problem is often the first step toward a creative solution. To paraphrase John Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, a properly defined problem is partially solved. And if your particular innovation involves the support of other people, a clearly defined problem helps form bonds and build teams where none existed before. Author John Seely Brown once said, "When we get in the spirit of following a problem to the root, that pursuit of listening to the problem brings multiple disciplines and multiple crafts together. The problem pulls people together." [double dagger]

[double dagger] From an interview in Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation, by Mark Stefik and Barbara Stefik (MIT Press, 2006).