Friday, May 20, 2011

Dumb Question

I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question.
Yogi Berra

I once had a nice market opportunity but I didn't know how to build the product. So, I asked 5 PhD scientists and 15 science graduate students to help me design the product. They all said it couldn't be done and had some very good reasons for it. A year later, someone else had a product on the market....and everyone of the scientists, including me, knew exactly how to make the product....and we had known how to make it since our sophomore years of college.

Read on for the details.

One day, a polite, well dressed, well spoken man entered my office. A mutual friend had sent him to me. The man, Charles, said he needed help with two projects.

The first project was an exciting, creative, valuable concept for microfinance. I gladly helped him with what I could and connected him to others who would help him make it happen.

The second project was nicely described as weird. You see, Charles had a few dogs and he hated the squishy feel of picking up their poop. So he said, "I want to spray it with a foam that would quickly harden so I can pick up the foam and dispose of it".

I immediately wished he wasn't sitting there; however, he was a friend of a friend, so I let him go on. He presented to me a massive volume of market data. After listening to it all, I had little doubt that there actually was a market need...perhaps you don't believe me, but hang with me on this because the need, or lack there of, is really not the point of this article.

At the time I was teaching innovation and creativity courses. I always told my students that what might start as a crazy idea can be transformed into something valuable if you are patient and put a little effort into it. So I set out to practice what I taught.

Fortunately, I was located near some of the world's leading minds in polymer science and many of them were experts in making rigid foams. Five of them told me, independently, that we'd never be able to get a foam that would set up fast enough, be reasonably cost effective and non-toxic. I knew enough of the science to agree with them. I should point out that they all laughed at the market and were hardly taking me serious, but they were friends so they humored me.

But I wasn't done. I took the idea, along with Charles, to my creativity class of polymer science and medicinal chemistry students. These 15 students laughed and joked along with Charles about the market. They spent an hour brainstorming solutions, spent a week more outside the classroom working on (or joking about) the idea. They came up empty.

A year later, a colleague came into my office and handed me a USAir catalog. In it was "Poop-Freeze". Yes, a product for turning squishy poop into hard poop that could easily be picked up. Click on the link if you don't believe me.

Poop-Freeze was simply compressed air. Every scientist I spoke with understood very well that compressed air could freeze poop when it expanded. It's such a simple solution, everyone knew the answer, but we were asking the wrong question. We were asking how do we create a rigid foam when we should have been asking how do we make the poop rigid.

It could BE different, had we asked the right question.

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