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September 2010

Rethinking Outside the Box

September 2010
Rethink Outside the Box
By

I'm working on a "top-secret", personal, side project which we hope to launch in a few months. The project is called "Comrade Share", and through our service we will provide new solutions to several common entrenched problems. In the process, I've come to some interesting conclusions about finding solutions to common problems. This isn't a roadmap to solving all problems, but it is one great way to rethink outside the box. And if the problem is big enough, your solution can change the world. Four simple steps can help us think through the process:

  1. Identify the Constants
  2. Identify Current Solutions
  3. Reevaluate the Constants
  4. Find New Solutions for Deprecated Constants

Identify the Constants

First figure out what the constants are in the equation. What are the limitations and obstacles that make this a problem in the first place? What are the constants that all previous solutions have tried to work around?

Example

So pick a problem you often face. For the sake of this exercise let's look at the problem of traffic. Obviously this is just an example, and we aren't going to solve the problem today, but you'll get the point. The constants may be something like:

  • Physical Presence: I need to travel from point A to point B.
  • Time: I need to get to work at 8:00 am.
  • Volume: The Roads are limited in size.
  • Capacity: There are too many cars on the road.

Identify Current Solutions

Before you attempt to solve a problem, it's important to understand what solutions currently exist. This helps you understand where everyone has devoted their energy in the past, which can help you find constants that have been neglected in the past because they were considered unsolvable at the time (but maybe they aren't unsolvable today).

Example

People have tried to solve the traffic problem in several ways:

  • Physical Presence: telecommute when you can.
  • Time: increase tolls during peak hours; encourage people to work flexible hours.
  • Volume: build bigger roads.
  • Capacity: encourage commuting and car sharing via carpool lanes.

Reevaluate the Constants

After you know what the constants are, think about them a little bit and consider whether or not these constants are really constant anymore. Are they really immovable obstacles? Or has some new technology or reality shift made them irrelevant or at the very least partially moveable. Even a 3% improvement can introduce a lot of benefits in the long run.

The biggest problems we face on a daily basis are often so entrenched in our psyche that we fail to stop and ask if all the constants are still constants. We fail to see that the ground may have shifted under our feet and one of those constants is just waiting for a simple solution. If you can find a solution from a new angle, there is a lot of opportunity for improvement, which means you have a new business opportunity for a unique product or solution.

Example

If we look at the traffic as a private citizen you may realize that your work now allows telecommuting 3 days a week. Poof, one of your constants has disappeared, you no longer have to get from point A to point B. Or you may realize that there is a side street that circumvents the worst traffic points, so you've found a solution to the problem of too many cars on the road.

As a business person, you may look at one of those constants and realize that you can combine 3-4 existing technologies to solve the problem in a new way. You may be the first person to realize that the standard barriers are no longer in our way. Maybe you take Google's traffic data and make an app to do live alternative rerouting suggestions for "Quickest Route", in conjunction with a some form of carpool social networking that addresses the capacity constant. With the invention of new technologies and new social networking trends some of the barriers of coordination are torn down and opportunities arise.

Find New Solutions for Deprecated Constants

After you find a constant that is no longer immovable, you can engineer a new solution. It may not be easy, there may still be a lot of obstacles, but you may be able to make a considerable difference in the problem.

 

In the case of my side project, the subtle shift in current technologies has opened up a huge opportunity for solving a very pesky problem. A few years ago our solution would have been impractical because few people had mobile devices and so a mobile app wouldn't appeal to anyone. But today there are enough mobile users that it creates a large enough core community to make a social network work, and the idea can now blossom. So keep evaluating old problems and you may stumble upon something new.

 

 


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