The Simple Plan for People Who Want To Solve Big Problems

[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation]

The Simple Plan

If you want to make progress happen, or be someone who brings good ideas into the world, this is for you. It’s the simplest, easiest, most straightforward way to convert your ambition into action. When I’m asked to give advice about managing creativity or how to make an organization “innovative” this is what I share.

  1. Forget the word innovation: focus on solving a problem. Most products out in the world are not very good. You rarely need a breakthrough to improve things, to beat the competition, or to help people suffering from a problem. If you carefully study the problem you’re trying to solve, you will discover many clear ways, some forgotten or executed poorly, to make it better. That’s the best place to start. If you solve a problem for a customer that makes them happy enough to pay for it, do you really think they will care if it’s “innovative” or a “breakthrough”? They just want their problems solved. If you cured cancer conventionally, would the patients refuse, saying “but it’s not innovative.” Of course not. Often it’s the combination of many conventional solutions, the combination obscuring how old some of the ideas were, that is called an innovation afterwards by people ignorant of the history of those ideas. So don’t worry. Sometimes small ideas, applied well, matter more than big ideas. Try to use workmanlike language: problem, prototype, experiment, customer, design, and solution, instead of the jargon of breakthrough, radical, game-changing and innovative. This keeps you low to the ground, and prevents your ego from distracting you away from simply making good things.
  2. If you work with others, you need leadership and trust. There’s no point worrying about which creativity or management method you’re using, or how much budget you’re going to spend, if people don’t trust each other. It’s the leader’s job to create an environment of trust so ideas move freely and can grow. Developing new ideas is scary and demands vulnerability and if people don’t trust each other their talents will never be revealed. It’s also the leader’s role to use their superior power to take risks, and protect the team from the dangers of those risks. This sounds obvious, but look around. It’s rare. Many people do not trust their teams, nor work for leaders who are willing to stake their reputations on the risks of a new idea. It’s uncommon to find someone in power who is willing to take the blame for problems, but also willing to give credit to subordinates as rewards for their efforts. If you’re a leader, the burden is on you. If you’re not, and you don’t work for someone who creates trust and is willing to take risks, good work will not happen where you are. Either move, find the courage to take a bet and force the issue, or accept the status quo.
  3. If you work with others, and things are not going well, make the team smaller. There is a reason great things often happen in small organizations. With fewer people, there are fewer cooks and fewer egos. In many large organizations there are too many people involved for anything interesting to happen. The first advice I give teams when things are not going well is to make the team smaller. If you’re the boss, and the politics are too complex, volunteer yourself to leave. Do whatever is necessary to reduce the number of people involved in developing ideas, and/or making decisions. The dynamic of getting 3 people to agree to take a risk together is much simpler than getting 30 people to do the same. Three people can achieve an intellectual intimacy faster, and be fully invested and passionate about a decision in ways thirty people can’t be. Another solution is to pick one creative leader, and give them more power. A film director is the singular creative leader on a movie. Yet most corporate or academic projects divide up leadership across committees, diffusing authority, which always makes decisions more conservative, the opposite of what you want.
  4. Be happy about interesting ‘mistakes’. If you are doing something new, it can not go well on the first, second, or possibly 50th time. This is OK. Your mindset has to be, ‘This did not go how I expected, but I expected that! What can I learn so the next attempt improves? (or teaches more interesting lessons)” The more interesting the lesson, the better. It’s the mind of an experimenter (see Chapter 3) that you want to cultivate, asking questions about everything you make, and using the answers to those questions to fuel the next attempt and the next. Many people quit on their 2nd or 3rd try at something, for reasons that have nothing to do with the history of innovation. There was not a story in this book where any of the brilliant minds mentioned succeeded on such a small number of tries. Perseverance, as simple a concept as it is, is rare. The more ambitious the problem you’re trying to solve, the more experiments and attempts you will need to get it right.
  5. Pick a project and start doing something. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking big results always need big plans. Often big plans come only from what’s learned from small samples and prototypes. Write a draft. Draw a sketch. Make a prototype. Have a small ambition you can manifest quickly so the stakes are low, and the pace is fast. The temptation is to have a grand idea, but don’t wait too long to find one. That can come later. Think of drafts as scouting for ideas. Before you can build a city, you must thoughtfully scout and map the landscape. Having a thing, even a napkin drawing, to look at improves the quality of conversations about the possible ideas. And if you can’t find a way to start a project at work, do it on weekends – history is full of creative heroes who never had approval from anyone to do it. There is always a way to start, just pick something small enough you can do yourself in an afternoon, or with a friend, and get to work.

It’s easy to discount these 5 basic notions as they seem so simple, but that’s the trap.  I’m convinced ones that don’t overlook these have the highest odds of producing good work, in a healthy culture, with results the team and the customers are proud of. The challenge is commitment as it’s natural to dream of an easier way, and hope for a trick or formula or magical method to avoid the work and the risks. You will find many consultants and experts who promise you things that do not exist based on stories not supported by history. But I hope that the true stories you read earlier in this book will anchor your confidence, defend you against the many myths, and help this simple view stay with you.


[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of The Myths of Innovation]

7 Responses to “The Simple Plan for People Who Want To Solve Big Problems”

  1. Matt

    Great post, Scott! Numbers 3 & 5 really resonate with me – first build the trust and then the fear of making mistakes is diminished. And let’s face it – mistakes must and will be made, but it’s how you react to them that makes all the difference.

    Thanks again for the inspiration :)

    1. Scott Berkun

      You’re welcome. Trust is much harder to create and protect than we all assume. But at least now I trust you understand that :) Your point about reacting to mistakes is apt – a manager’s true ability is revealed not when things go right, but when they’re not going perfectly.

  2. Sean Crawford

    I suppose an appropriate metaphor is a conversation in a bar with a Toastmaster:
    “If it’s true,” she said in frustration, “that most of of your message is from who you are, then why do we merely give feedback (measure) things like your gestures, organization and vocal variety?”

    I said, “Because these things (like ‘one minute manager’ techniques) can be easily fixed. Who you are is an inside job that takes years.”

    As for me, down the years, I’m glad I’ve kept my eye on the prize of being trustworthy.

    1. Claire

      Scott, great timing for me, I need to be reminded of this right now. I am studying creativity and procrastination… and procrastinating. I am thinking of it as autoethnography (so I can reflect on the experience of procrastinating) but I may also be having myself on.

      BTW the last paragraph has a lead in sentence that doesn’t seem to make sense.

      @Sean – great insight – thanks

      1. Sean Crawford

        you remind me of Scott’s Essay #49 How to Make a Difference.

        As Buffy would sing, “Thanks for noticing.”

  3. Ted Koehl

    I have purchased several of your books over the years and enjoy the insights and opinions on your website. My adult (children) usually borrow your books rather long term. I am sure they have benefited from your ideas and I look forward to your next work.


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