Sunday, January 29, 2017

How We Dream Up Things That Change the World - Make the Tools That Fix the Problem

I'm reading a good book called 'INVENTology.  How We Dream Up Things That Change the World', by Pagan Kennedy.

Ms. Kennedy, former innovation columnist for the New York Times, advances the idea of a 'Lead User' and how people in that role - all of us looking to solve a problem - can infer world changing solutions no one has yet seen.

The term Lead User was first coined in the 1970s by economist Eric Von Hipple as a name for people who struggle with problems for which no off-the-shelf solution is available.  Along the way he became a Lead User himself, as the inventor of a solution people needed for a specific problem that few even recognized.   In the end there were many, and various problems his solution solved.

When Von Hippel later switched carreers and became a researcher he was struck by the question:  Who really dreams up breakthrough ideas?

First he identified about 100 scientific instruments that had made a significant impact and then dug in.  "He learned that about 80 percent of the scientific instrument products had begun with someone who needed the tool."

This is the lesson my engineer/inventor Dad taught me:  if you want to make a real impact you design the tool that makes the tool that makes the product.  That is, you get into the problem deeply enough to personally understand what's needed to make the tools that help solve those problems.

Here is the author's summary of this phase:  "Of course, only certain types of problems are valuable.  Ideally you would want to suffer from a frustration that is rare now (so that no one else knows about it) but that one day will bother lots of people.  'Lead Users are familiar with the conditions which lie in the future for most others', Von Hippel wrote, and so 'they can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory.'"

This is my take away.  The world has problems.  Our job is to understand what's needed next and invent tools to help get us through what's coming.

Seems about right.

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