Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Solutions sometimes come from unexpected sources, as an American potato chip maker that wanted to launch a low-calorie chip knows. The problem was that the chips had a high fat content due to the way they were baked… but chips baked without oil taste like cardboard. The makers had to find a way to shake off the grease after baking, without breaking the fragile chips. They found the answer when the chip maker posted an emergency appeal on the Internet. A musician let them know that the water in his glass would vibrate in response to the bass tones from his speakers. Now the chips go onto a conveyor belt after baking, where all the grease vibrates off them.
Stephen Shapiro beams as he shares the anecdote. The American innovation guru is a strong advocate of open innovation, wherein new solutions aren’t invented behind closed doors by a small group of “experts” but are discovered through interaction with the outside world—on the Internet, for instance. This approach allows everyone to contribute to new ideas. Shapiro believes the result is far better.
In our complex world, it is important for organizations to keep innovating. But creativity cannot be forced, and solutions don’t just fall into our laps. Right? Shapiro, whose work history includes consulting gigs for such major corporations as Shell, Nike and NASA, has drawn up a short list of suggestions that can bring the solution to any ­problem closer. According to him, it’s mainly about making connections. “The best solutions don’t come from an expert,” he explains. “They often come from someone who isn’t involved in the situation at all and may have expertise in a completely ­different field.” If you want to innovate, you need to make sure you have a varied team. These ­diverse backgrounds ensure a broader range of ­experience. A company may be ­facing a ­problem that someone else has ­already solved. “It’s a matter of asking the right ­questions.”
He takes a quick peek at his iPad to look up his favorite example. Unilever wanted a good whitening toothpaste that did not ­contain bleach. The inventors in the toothpaste department had no idea how to make it…until they asked the right question: Who else is working on how to make white whiter? The laundry detergent department! The inventors only had to go down a floor to learn that the toothpaste just needed a bit of blue coloring. It creates the optical impression of white teeth.
According to Shapiro, there’s one more important ingredient for innovation: creativity. He believes it flourishes “when we’re more relaxed and living in the moment.” His schedule is packed with lectures and workshops, but Shapiro doesn’t seem to suffer from stress. He leans back calmly as he tells his story in a patient and friendly tone. His iPad serves as a notepad, which he uses to sketch out his methods.
Shapiro’s recipes sometimes clash with conventional ideas in management circles. In his opinion, we shouldn’t be thinking outside the box, as we so often hear, but working within fixed borders and then combining those clearly defined areas at a later point. And we shouldn’t hire people with whom we get along so well that we wouldn’t mind going on a week’s holiday with them but people who grate on us a bit. And we should never just ask for ideas but make sure we’re asking the right question first.
Doesn’t Shapiro consider it slightly ironic that his latest book, Best ­Practices Are Stupid, is full of successful examples, including 40 ways to stay ahead of the competition as an innovator? “You shouldn’t try repeating what someone else did to be successful,” he says ­decidedly.
Shapiro’s tips work, in his opinion, because they are basic principles that you can apply anywhere. Understand the context and the question that the company is asking. Only use the aspects that apply in your own context. And talk to a musician every once in a while; he might just have a solution for you.
Want more stories that kick conventional thinking to the curb? Find them in this free issue.

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