Like pigs and mushrooms, innovations hide in shit.
They are there inside and under your least favorite, most intractable problems.
I first learned this from a quote by the 20th shipbuilder and philanthropist Henry Kaiser. “Problems are opportunities dressed in work clothes.” It was said also of the late Ronald Reagan that if he came upon an Augean-like smelly stables he would not notice the stink and instead focus on the fact there might be some useful horses in there among the muck.
Innovations come from asking new questions about the same old problems.
Where did Compstat come from? Jack Maple and his version of the Merry Pranksters the bowels of old Times Square looked at the same problem — subway robberies — that everyone had accepted as facts of life in the Apple. Compstat was wallowing in the squalor and misery of 1970’s Times Square and the graffiti-encrusted subway cars running beneath it. Maple and his band asked a new question: How do we prevent robberies? The answer is history, indeed.
Where did CeaseFire come from? Paul Joyce and Bob Merner and Bob Frattalia and their crew of tough city kids looked at other city kids wiping each other out and asked the new question. How do we prevent the next death? David Kennedy showed up to help them see and apply better what they were creating. And there it was. The innovation has ben shooting at them the whole time. Once they saw it, they changed how police and society understand gangs.
As in math, a problem properly understood offers its own solution. It was true for Newton. It was true for Einstein. It was true for Marie Curie and Aristotle. It’s tue in physics, medicine and baseball. Consider the 2013 Boston Red Sox.
The one-time Bo-Flops inverted by 180 degrees all their worst problems of 2012. They had quitters who were average and quitters who were overpaid prima donnas. They had a manager with sporadic ability and eccentric behavior. The owners and the new GM asked a question they had not asked for a few years. How do we win 95 games? The answer, apparently, was, get lots of fearless players with above-average skill and the right manager to manage, guide and motivate them. They cleared the clubhouse. They signed a raft of above-average players who will not quit. They traded for a skilled manager with a sound character. Once they understood the problem they had it solved. All that was left was the mechanics.
So do a little exercise. Make a list of your biggest, stinkiest problems in two categories.
1. Crime and disorder.
2. Labor relations.
Put together a small group of diverse people, all of whom have a stake in solving this problem. Ask them to come to consensus, however rough and sweat-stained, on the true nature of the problem. DO NOT ask them to “solve” the problem. That will stunt the inquiry and they will not find the innovation in the heap of assumptions and presumption on which every important problem rests. Ask them to tell you how and why the problem works.
The result will be an innovation. Guaranteed.
Your office also will smell better.