Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Peeling the Onion: a recipe for innovation

Problems have layers too
Shrek: Ogres are like onions!
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes... No!
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry?
Shrek: No!
Donkey: Oh, you leave 'em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs...
Shrek: NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers... You get it? We both have layers.

Problems are like ogres, uh, I mean onions.  They have layers too.  If you take a look at any common problem that affects a large population, it’s hard to find an innovative solution because someone has already done all the obvious and sensical things.  One way of breaking out of this box is to redefine the problem.  By peeling away the outside layer of a problem you can reframe the problem in unique ways that drive new insights.

Let’s try this on a common consumer problem… tangled headphone wires.  Yes, it sucks when you pull those headphones out of your pocket or bag and have to spend a minute untangling the mess like a bomb squad specialist defusing a homemade clock.  But this problem has been around for ages.  People have tried special winding cases, thicker wire, retractable cords, and of course wireless bluetooth headsets.  It seems that this is a pretty oversaturated problem.  How can we think of anything new?  Stop fixating on the cord and change the problem a bit.

Option 1: Narrow the problem by take an existing solution and focusing on its problems.
For example, the special winding cases were awesome, except for two things:

  1. It takes work - valuable seconds even, to place the headsets appropriately in the case and wind them right.  
    1. New problem statement: A case where the headsets are held correctly without any orienting from the user.  
    2. Now we have fresh ideas again.  If magnets could hold the ear buds correctly, managing the rest of the wiring would be easy.  Or the shape of the ear buds could make it lock into place from any orientation.  New ideas abound.
  2. People lose cases.  
    1. New problem statement:  A case whenever you need it
    2. Consider having many sleeves which you affix semipermanently to your bag, your pocket, your car, etc.  Or maybe the headphones ARE the case.  Or you design the headphones as accessories to your bag and clothing, so you have multiple headphones (they’re so cheap these days).

Option 2: Step back and “Ask why?”

Here we search for the broader problem. Why are people even using corded wires in the first place?  Better sound?  Privacy?  Where are they using them?  In the car?  This opens up new possibilities.  Consider a car stereo system that uses hyperbolic speakers to focus sound only to the driver or to the passenger.   Or maybe speakers built into a shirt.  These might not be the final solution you’re looking for, but innovation is about finding new paths to walk, and this allows you to climb out of the crowded valley and explore new lands.

And please iterate.  If the next layer down is still uninspiring, we need to go deeper.  Peel back layers until you reach a problem statement that triggers your brain to start making the unexpected connections we call innovation.  If you’re feeling stuck, peeling the onion can inspire new lines of thinking by creating a host of new prompts to get those innovative juices flowing.  So next time you get stuck thinking about solutions to a problem, try peeling back layers of the problem itself.  Find new ways of looking at the problem, and the solutions will come.