Problem solving? You’ll find the best solution outside your own industry

While it makes sense to look for solutions within your own industry, the truly awe-inspiring ideas are usually found in more unexpected places.

More than once I’ve written about the beauty of searching for solutions in other fields. When you encounter a truly challenging problem, it’s usually not sufficient to look for solutions within your own industry. Truly ground-breaking solutions tend to originate in different fields.

A common mistake

During problem-solving, it seems logical to consult those who know a lot about the stuff you do. After all, the people who work in the same field might have encountered these problems before. And even if they haven’t, their expertise would make them perfectly capable of offering useful suggestions.

There is only one problem with that… If they are like you, they probably think like you. They are likely to come up with solutions very much like the ones you thought of! They have the same background and experience and it will lead them to more-or-less the same conclusions that you will reach. This means that when you can’t find a solution after giving it a lot of thought, there’s a good chance they can’t either. Also, if the people you turn to are competitors, they might not be inclined to help you out, even if they do have the answers.

By all means, start your problem-solving project by looking at existing solutions within your field. But as soon as you realise that this is not going to cut it, broaden your view.

Recently, I came across a great example of an invention that originated in a completely unexpected industry.

How coffee became palatable

Coffee has been around for centuries, but it hasn’t always been the smooth drink it is today.

For a long time, coffee would be brewed like tea: you would put ground coffee beans in boiling water and wait. The result would often be disappointing: the coffee would be too bitter or too watery and the unsuspecting customer would end up with ground beans between her teeth.

A German woman named Melitta Bentz was sick and tired of coffee grit between her teeth. She was determined to find a solution and set out to find something to separate the coffee from the grit.

Of course, people had tried to make coffee filters before. Usually, these people attempted to filter their coffee through cloth. Unfortunately, this turned out to be too porous and very annoying to clean afterwards.

After trying many different materials, in 1908 Bentz finally stumbled upon something promising: the blotting paper her son used to make his homework. The paper was designed for absorbing excess ink. It was thick, cheap and disposable. Bentz put a piece of the paper in a metal bowl with little holes and tried it out. It worked. The first proper coffee filter had been invented.

The company Melitta founded (and that still bears her name) still exists. Today, Melitta is a billion-dollar company with thousands of employees. The impressive result of a flash of insight that sparked when a mother was watching her little boy do his homework.

The moral of the story? Many people had been searching for ways to filter their coffee. But nobody had thought to look at the paper children used at school. By looking at fields that seem illogical, you increase your chances of finding revolutionary solutions.

Similar, yet unrelated

While it makes perfect sense to check how other organisations in your own industry have handled similar situations, the most valuable insights might be gained by looking at entirely unrelated fields. Look at industries that seem to have little to do with your own, yet face similar challenges. Looking for a way to clean hard-to-reach parts in your technical machines? Why not ask a dentist how he cleans those parts of the teeth that are hardest to reach… Does changing parts in your assembly line machines take up too much time? Why not study a Formula One pit crew?

Of course the ‘other fields’ you start investigating don’t have to as distant as the ones mentioned above. For instance, when we did a problem-solving session for a train company a little while ago, we started by talking to tram-, ferry- and metro-carriers. While they weren’t in the train business, they certainly knew a fair bit about transporting travellers. Non-competing organisations that are faced with similar challenges can both benefit immensely from exchanging ideas & experiences.

Where will you look next for problem-solving inspiration?

 

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