Why Not? A Guide for Ingenuity

The other day, my foster brother Seth and I were speaking about being innovative. Seth is a lead test engineer on a certain eXcellent gaming console in Redmond, WA.

"I don't think I have it in me," Seth commented, "I can almost always figure out how things work, like noise canceling headsets for example, but I don't know how people come up with those ideas in the first place."

"Maybe that's true," I responded, "but I bet that you could be trained."

I like to tell people that creating something innovative and new is like pulling on threads until it leads you to a sweater, or even better yet, it's like gathering threads into your hands until you finally realize that you're already holding a sweater. In non-knitting terms, innovation is an organic process, involving questions and observations, and a lot of looking at the world differently. And one of my favorite guides for looking at the world differently is Barry Nalebuff's and Ian Ayres' "Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small"

In twenty years and countless adventures in growing our business, our only progress and for that matter our only interesting breakthroughs have resulted from someone asking Why not? Nalebuff and Ayres have crafted an inspiring, imaginative, informative and best of all, fun treatise that will arouse the entrepreneur in all of us. You will fly through this book, and you will never look at a problem the same way again.

—Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO,Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, Inc.

In Why Not, Yale professors Nalebuff and Ayres (who are also the founders of Honest Tea) present four main methods to kick-starting your ingenuity. [courtesy of whynot.net]

What Would Croesus Do? Imagining how a consumer with unlimited resources (a modern-day Croesus) would solve a problem can inspire practical solutions. For example, Donald Trump or Bill Gates dont spend much time waiting on hold. They have an assistant wait on hold and then buzz them when the call goes through. Of course, we cant all afford personal assistants. Is there any way the rest of us could emulate this “personal assistant” strategy? Instead of waiting on hold to speak with an airline customer representative, why not have the airline call you back (just like Gates's assistant) when the rep is ready to talk to you? With caller ID, you wouldnt even have to enter your number.

Why Don’t You Feel My Pain? Externalizing internal problems, forcing the cost of inefficient practices to the surface is another way to solve problems. For example, the cost of providing auto-insurance is based on how many miles people drive. But the price doesnt reflect mileage. Why not pay-per-mile auto insurance? Why not have telemarketers pay us to listen to their pitches? While they are trying to sell you a product, you can be selling them your time.

Where Else Would It Work? This translation tool starts with a solution from another context and searches for a problem it might solve somewhere else. Why not translate ski area season passes to movie theaters? Why not take the airplane version of R-rated movies and make them available on DVDs? The April 15th deadline for contributions to an IRA is what leads to the idea of extending the tax deadline for charitable contributions.

Would Flipping It Work? Looking for potential symmetry and then turning things around offers unexpected solutions. Priceline.com built a business by flipping the way prices are set; they have customers offering prices to airlines. Heinz and Hunts stimulated sales by turning their ketchup bottles upside down. Having customers rewind video tapes at the beginning of the rental prevents people from shirking. Spain eliminated its waiting list for organs by changing the default from opt-in to opt-out. Instead of a boycott against companies that do things wrong, why not a buycott for companies that do things right.

The book is chock full of real life case studies to demonstrate the authors' four techniques for ingenuity, as well as exercises in which to test your own. If you finish the book and want more, you can always head on over to the Why Not Open Source Movement, "making it easier for good ideas to be heard". Play online why not games, post your problems and ideas, or solve someone else's! Or just read through and see how other people view the world.

Finally to close, I'll share with you a deeply held belief we have here at BRINQ, a sort of credo if you will:

Learning teaches you how to question, living gives you a wider base from which to leap, building deepens your point of view, and playing opens your mind to all possibilities. Learn, live, build, and play. We shorten that to "cria muito, brinca sempre", translated from the original Portuguese, create often, play always.

Please do.

Past “Innovation from the Brinq” articles:

Discordant NotesBambucicletas and Other “Cycles” of InnovationPoor People’s KnowledgeIndia - Innovation CentralBuilding a Better ATMKeeping it Cool