Innovation Triangle

Today’s CBS Money Watch blog is about the problem of people with high aspirations that are disappointed by their prospects. While I was referring specifically to MBAs, the same holds for people who have gone for a great educational achievement, including those offered through the CultureSync Academy.

The advice—to work on solving other people’s problems rather than your own—works because of something called the “Innovation Triangle.” This is my name for a whole batch of research, which I’ve referred to in many CBS blog posts. Here’s what it is, why it works, and how to supercharge your efforts to put it to work.

One leg of the innovation triangle is a “burning need.” It has to be a real need of real people, and it has to be acute. One of the principles of innovation is that it works best in a context of scarcity. You just have to get this to work, your back is to the wall. Perfect. By focusing on someone else’s problem, and committing to it, you put yourself in a situation where innovation will happen naturally. If you want to see proof of scarcity-based innovation, look at how much new technology came out of World War II and the Cold War.

The second leg of the innovation triangle is “spare parts,” a term from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Spare parts are anything you have sitting around, from knowledge to people you know, to your ability to write computer code. The key is that you’ll end up solving the burning problem by using spare parts in a new way.

The third leg of the innovation triangle is what gets produced when burning needs meet spare parts: new innovation. The innovations you come up with can help solve many different problems, including, perhaps, your own. Over time, when the newness of the innovation fades, it gets added to the garage—as a spare part. A by-product of innovation is more innovation, since you have more spare parts.

Here are two ways to put the innovation triangle to work to solve your problems. First, do a garage tour. This is where you catalog everything you have—all of your assets. And I mean all of your assets. Your intellectual property, your class notes if you’re an MBA, your contact database, your skills, your unique way of seeing the world. All of it. Make a huge list. If you want to supercharge the effort, do garage tours with others—a clean version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” As you report on your garage list, other people will remember things in their metaphoric garage, as well, just as you’ll remember things in yours when it’s their turn.

The garage tour is useful because people tend to solve problems with the spare parts they are aware of. Forget about a spare part, and it’s the same as not having it. A similar point is made by the liberal writer Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. She suggests that societal problems are solved by the theories of politics and economics that are around when the problem hits. So when everyone is talking about the glories of the private sector, when Katrina hits, a record number of services are handed to the private sector. While I don’t agree with her economic theories, the underlying principle is sound: if you have more spare parts sitting around when you need to solve a problem, you’ll be much more able to solve it. So garage tours get you thinking about your resources, and thus, becoming more resourceful.

Ironically, this is the best reason for education: not to solve a problem you have now, but to solve a problem no one has encountered yet. I encourage people to get MBAs so their garage will be filled with management tools for when they need them, and to review the content of their MBA once a year forever.

The second way to use the innovation triangle is to specifically task someone with the job of identifying new spare parts you create to solve the problem, and ask how these can be used. The Airbnb founders were wise enough to realize that by adding value to their users, they had come up with a new business model that could scale their company. Often, it takes someone else to ask, “how could we use this new thing we just developed?”

One of the best examples of how people usually solve stubborn problems indirectly came out of a recent session at USC. One of the participants—a highly educated and accomplished person—was frustrated that she couldn’t implement a specific solution in her company. She also lamented that she wasn’t better known within the senior executive circles. Unrelated to those concerns, she published an article in a newsletter in her field, mostly to help the people publishing the newsletter. The article caught on, and went viral. People in her company, including senior executives, stopped by her office to thank her for the great bit of writing. Someone who knew of her original frustration pointed that she was now “famous” in her company, and that she could use that prestige to re-introduce her idea to executives. She did, and they adopted her solution. The key is that it took someone else to point out the new spare part (fame), and even to connect the dots that she now had what it took to solve her original problem.

With the news that more European countries are slipping into recession, and that job growth in the U.S. appears to be slowing down, we all need to innovate our way out of disappointment. I hope you’ll find others who are having problems and help them out, so that you’ll both end up winning.

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