Throughout my career, I’ve been encouraged to address things in positive terms. Managers, in particular, would insist that I rephrase problems, difficulties, mistakes, and tragedies as challenges, issues, learning opportunities, “what might be improved,” and chances to find the silver lining. While there is some value to being optimistic and not wallowing in disappointment and failure, bad experiences highlight needs that inspire innovators and entrepreneurs to create new products and services. In fact, it could be argued that the things that frustrate us and ruin our days work powerfully to motivate us to find important answers.
Exposing needs can be difficult. As an individual, it’s possible to look for solutions when we face problems and suffer set-backs. A habit of recording bad moments and analyzing them can lead to creating a treasury of possibilities to create value. The annoyance of having markers fallen out of the hymnal revealed the value of low-tack adhesive used in Post-it notes.
Of course, the breadth of an innovator’s analytical capabilities can extend the value of such understandings. For instance, being able to look at problems holistically, with then a larger context, can lead to bigger solutions. The ability to break down a problem into smaller components can often reveal solutions that are more feasible than what is apparent when the entire problem is considered. In addition, a creative person will look toward comparable problems within other contexts, and this can reveal both possible solutions and more urgent needs to be satisfied.
Classically, needs are discovered by interviewing communities and customers. This can be problematic since often people have solutions that are good enough or they have dealt with a problem so many times that they have become inured to it. In addition, people can even attach a positive value to doing things the old way, despite costs in time, resources, risk, and dangers to health. In some cases, the need may be difficult to expose because the burden is shifted. I knew someone who spent the winter choking on smoke that came from the chimney of a neighbor.
The needs of having someone who lives in a different locale or who deals with a disability of some sort may be invisible to innovators and entrepreneurs who do not cultivate relationships with people whose lives are different from their own. Often, great ideas emerge when an inventor or an engineer or someone who’s experienced in solving problems and is put in a new or more diverse environment.
Grumpy people can be especially good at identifying needs. I imagine the removal of tags from clothing came less because of the ability to print required information on fabric than it did from sensitive people who were so irritated by the tags that they complained about having to remove them. I also suspect that there are people who are personally offended by solutions that are awkward and clumsy. Perhaps the core of Steve Jobs’s genius was the intolerance for kludgy products that did their jobs but lacked elegance.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and there is some truth in that. But an ability to squarely face the inconveniences, difficulties, poor choices, delays, workarounds, wasted efforts, and anxieties of life — and then refuse to continue to put up with them — may be the driver of even more benefits for our society. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”