Inventors are ordinary people with extraordinary perception. They see the same things we all see, but they are more observant and very, very curious. “Why?” pops out of their mouth a lot.
For example, if you have a common coffee carafe you may have noticed that if you pour with any speed (“I need my coffee NOW!”) the fluid runs back down the side of the carafe and spills all over the counter. Are you one of the folks who just wipes up the mess, or do you, in your caffeine-deprived state, wonder what it is that would cause something as simple as a pour spout to malfunction?
Kudos to those of you with carafes that don’t spill. I’ll bet they are not made of glass. Turns out this is a physics problem with glass carafes. In order to make the glass more robust and not sharp edged, the lip is slightly rounded, which disrupts the fluid flow at the lip. The slight compression of the fluid makes it more likely to follow the glass than gravity, and the faster you pour, the more you spill.
When you see a “problem” try exploring it for (I know this sounds cliché) opportunities. The best solutions are ones that completely bypass the problem. What’s the best way to sail around the Cape of Good Hope? Don’t do it (ergo the Suez Canal). Another example is when we see a chain of operations starting with people entering data electronically to then print the form, send it in to get scanned and checked, with all sorts of poor quality 3rd party form-filling software and people marking on the paper and mishandling the paper. You could look at that and try to solve all the problems in the chain, or you could see a business opportunity to put those poor quality 3rd party vendors out of business and completely bypass the print/scan translation steps (our own Suez Canal!).
In our agile training we harp endlessly about the importance of continuous improvement. The most important lesson is that this is about how to see the world and not some specific, measurable behavior. The opportunities are endless, if we only dial up our sensitivities. Try it out the next time you see a problem and ask “why?” Inventors are not necessary gifted from birth; the curiosity can be developed with deliberate effort. There is any number of formal brainstorming techniques used by high tech companies for “inventing the future”, but in the end it’s a way of thinking.