Author Talks: Why problem solving is the key to innovation


In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Dr. Sheena Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, about her new book, Think Bigger: How to Innovate (Columbia Business School Publishing, April 2023). Iyengar shares insight into her research on problem solving and explains how adaption and critical decision making affect innovation. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem are you trying to solve with this book?

Think Bigger: How to Innovate is a book that walks you step by step through how you can create a solution to any problem you’re trying to solve.

It seems like everything that there is to know about innovation or that we could know about innovation has already been done. Yet if you read all those books about innovation carefully, essentially all of them are based on knowledge that’s old.

Our current practices in the business world—and even, I might add, in academic settings—have not updated their approaches to teaching people how to be creative, how to ideate in line with those recent advances. We still tell people, effectively, to either mind wander—sort of daydream—or to brainstorm. Brainstorming was invented in 1930, although we have updated it and made it better than it was in 1938. Given our current knowledge about the way the mind works, we can do better than waiting for a mind wander to have a result or a so-called aha moment or a flash of insight to happen. We can do better than brainstorm.

Essentially, the problem that the Think Bigger: How to Innovate methodology solves for is the question, “What do you need to do to have an idea?” It’s not about waiting for an aha moment. It’s not about going out and brainstorming. It’s what you can actually do, step by step, to get an idea.

There is also a personal reason behind the book for you.

There is a very personal, emotional reason. I was born with a rare eye disease: retinitis pigmentosa. I have a rare form of it; I went blind as a very young person. One of the things that happens when you’re growing up disabled is that you’re forever told about all the choices you can’t have. At the same time, you have this message that you’re always given, particularly in American culture, that you can grow up and do and be whatever it is you want to do and be, as long as you put your heart and mind to it.

If you think about it, both those messages are essentially extreme and incorrect. It’s not the case that I can’t do anything. It’s not the case that I can do anything. The questions are, how do I figure out what choices I have? What choices can I create?

That was a lifelong struggle for me. It was something that I very much started to try and tackle growing up and then as an undergrad. And certainly my dissertation and much of my research up until Think Bigger: How to Innovate had to do with choice and how I, as a disabled person, have choices.

What I also began to realize, though, is that my way of creating choices, either when there are no known choices out there for me or when people just don’t realize what choices might be available to me, could be a method that was based on science. What I realized is that this isn’t just me who has this struggle of, “How do you create meaningful choices?”

When I look around me, every single person is wondering, “What dreams are possible for me? Which of those dreams can I turn into reality, and what’s that process, step by step?” Rather than waiting for chance encounters or waiting for an aha moment to hit you, maybe I can actually make it more systematic for you, so you have a how-to toolkit.

As step one, why is it important to choose the right problem?

Let’s take the invention of ice cream. Who made ice cream this globally accessible thing? She was a woman by the name of Nancy Johnson who, in the 1800s, was the wife of a chemist. She was a 50-year-old woman who was a missionary. Well one of the things that happened back then is that, yes, you had ice cream, but it was very, very expensive. George Washington paid close to $200 for a little thing of ice cream when he was president.

In the early 1800s, Nancy Johnson asks the question, “How do you make ice cream accessible?” Now back then, they would take a bowl, and they would fill it with ice. Then they would take a smaller bowl, fill it with cream, and then stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir. It would form lots of lumps, and it would get harder and harder to stir as it’s thickening. It was backbreaking labor.

The first question was, “How do you keep it cold as you’re stirring it?” Because it would often melt as they would be stirring it. “How do you make it easier to make so it’s not backbreaking labor, and how do you keep it from forming lumps?”

What does Nancy Johnson do? She takes a water pail, which had been around already for 400 years. But the pail was much bigger than the bowl. She then fills that with ice, and then inside it, she puts the cream into something made of pewter. She asked herself, “How do you keep it cold? Well when men go to the tavern, what do they drink their beer in that keeps it cold? Pewter.”

She puts the cream in the pewter container, then said, “How do I make the labor less backbreaking?” Well let’s use a hand crank,” which was used for grinding up spices and coffee. “Let’s attach to that hand crank spatulas.” But the spatulas would have holes in them so that as you’re stirring, the liquid could go through, which would make it a lot easier to stir. She learned about the role of spatulas with holes in them from runaway slaves who were often coming from sugar plantations where they had to mix hot, sugary liquids to make molasses. And to prevent it from forming crystals, they would have these holes in the spatula.

Essentially, you create a culmination of water pail, plus the pewter bowl, plus the hand grinder, plus the spatula with the holes in it. You’ve now created what was dubbed as a disruptive technology back in 1843.

What are the steps here? You define the problem, which is step one. You break it down into its most important subparts: How do I keep it cold? How do I make it less cumbersome to make? How do I reduce the formation of lumps? For each subpart of your problem, you search far and wide so you can go beyond your industry. You go beyond your main domain of inquiry. You ask yourself how other industries solve for this subproblem—for example, with pewter, the hand grinder, the spatula with the holes in it. You now combine those pieces together in a unique way. And voilà, you have an innovation that not only solved the problem but now becomes scalable.

That is essentially the Think Bigger: How to Innovate method; that is essentially what I teach people how to do. In step one, you start by defining the problem. Most of the time, it’s actually not as self-evident as, “How do I make ice cream accessible?” I would suspect that even Nancy Johnson took a while before she understood how to define that problem. As Einstein was reported to have said, “If I had an hour to save the planet, I would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and the last five minutes thinking about the solution.”

Step two is to break the identified problem into subcomponents?

Once you have your problem statement, which we always phrase as a question—”What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?”—in order that you can have an open mind, you then break it down. You break it down into its most important pieces.

Every problem has a bazillion things that have to be solved. You’re never going to solve everything. I call it “the 80 percent rule.” You break it down into the highest-priority parts. If I were to solve for these three to five different subparts, then I’ll solve for about 80 percent of my problem.

Let’s take a sport that’s very near and dear to our hearts: basketball. The guy who invented basketball was James Naismith, who, in 1891, was this gym teacher in Massachusetts. He was asked to come up with a sport that young people could play in the winter. In spring and summer, when the weather was nice, they could play football, they could play rugby, they could play lacrosse, and they could play soccer. But how do you keep them occupied and burn off their energy in the winter in Massachusetts, when there was a lot of snow?

What were the things he had to solve for? Well he had to make sure the sport was playable indoors. He had to make sure that whatever sport they played wouldn’t be so rough—you couldn’t have them falling on the ground; it was going to be a rough floor, and that could hurt somebody. It had to feel challenging. It had to be fast, competitive, and burn off some energy.

He’s looking around at soccer, football, et cetera, and says, “What if we take a ball, like from soccer? Think about a ball, what can I do with it indoors? Well passing it sounds like a good idea. But obviously we don’t want to push. That could lead to injury. But I don’t want to have them throw the ball to a line; that seems awfully easy in an indoor space. A net seems a little too complicated. What do I do? Well how about this sport that nobody ever really knows about? It’s called ‘duck on the rock.’ A little ‘duck’ sits on a rock, and you throw things at it to get the duck to fall off. What if we did something like that indoors?” He took a peach basket, and he made a hole in it. “What if we throw the soccer ball into that?”

The reason that James Naismith was able to create basketball was that he understood what subparts of his problem he needed to solve for. That’s what enabled him to create the game.

Step three is asking what the problem will solve for?

You’ve got your problem, and you’ve broken it down. Now most people tend to start generating solutions. That’s certainly a very natural temptation to have. I always say, at that point, create a “sparking lot.” These are just sparks. Whatever solution you’re going to come up with right now is partial.

It’s important at this stage, when you know a bit about the problem, to step back and ask yourself, if you were to find the ideal solution, how should it feel? How are you going to know what solution is better for you versus worse for you? By really knowing how you want that solution to feel.

You know, we think feelings are bad things and shouldn’t be a part of any creative or decision-making process. That’s incorrect. Feelings are the only things that can truly guide you in determining what your selection criteria is. You still have to be systematic about it. You can’t be random about when you use your feelings. That’s why we do it right now in step three.

How do you want your final solution to feel? You have to uncover your wants. You know there’s the famous story about Bill Gates. It is about when he first created his basic software; he attached his software to a desktop computer called Altair. People really weren’t interested in the computer, but they were very interested in his software. He kept finding people who were pirating his software. It made him mad, and he would write these nasty letters to all these computer hobbyists saying, “You guys are just pirates.”

He was pretty angry about it as long as he thought his fate and his desires were attached to Altair. Then one day, when he was walking around a conference floor with computer hobbyists, he discovered they were all using his software. They were exchanging it on all kinds of machines. And then a light bulb went off in his head. “Wait, what is it that I really want? Is it that I want Altair to succeed? Or is it that I want people to start using this software?” After he had that insight, he essentially terminated his contract and went on to take his software to IBM and other companies. The world has never been the same.

Step four is to search both in and out of the box?

Once you get to step four, you’re now ready to start the ideation process, the solution-generation process. Step four I call “search in and out of the box.” The reason that I call it that is, so often, we tell people to do out-of-the-box thinking. Then we stick them in the room and tell them to brainstorm.

Well, brainstorming is a great way to share the knowledge that’s in the room. But it’s not out-of-the-box thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking requires you to search far and wide for how different industries and different people at different points in time have solved for analogous problems.

Out-of-the-box thinking requires you to search far and wide for how different industries and different people at different points in time have solved for analogous problems.

You collect those tactics or strategies. Let’s take the case of Henry Ford and the invention of the Ford car. Henry Ford did not invent the car. Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. Henry Ford did not invent any of the elements that went on to create the Model T. He searched far and wide and found the pieces he needed to put together.

Back then, a car cost $2,000, which was unaffordable. So Ford thought, “How do I reduce the cost of labor? How do I reduce the amount of time it takes to make a car? How do I reduce the cost of materials?” Very simple, subparts to the problem.

“How do I reduce the cost of labor? Well by creating specialization.” The assembly line was actually already being used by Oldsmobile. Now you have a system where one person knows about putting together the engine, another person knows about putting together the frame, and so forth. Each person has to learn only their particular thing, which makes them faster and faster at doing that thing.

“How do I reduce the amount of time that it takes to make a car?” At that time, it took 12.5 hours to build a car. When one of Ford’s engineers was visiting the slaughterhouses of Chicago, they observed something very interesting. In the early 1900s, when they would take an animal apart to pack it and send it on a train to various locations, they would use something called “the moving disassembly line.” Ford already had an assembly line for the car. What happens if you add the moving business to this? It reduces the amount of time it takes to build a car from 12.5 hours to about two hours. That’s huge!

“Now how do I reduce the cost of materials?” Back then, you could have your car any color you wanted. But Ford was famous for saying you could have your car in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. That’s because there was this new paint that had come on the market called japanning. It looked like a black lacquer—very much like Japanese art— and would dry in less than 24 hours. The average paint color back then would take about seven to 14 days to dry. Once you put together japanning with a moving assembly line, not only do you reduce the amount of time it takes to build a car, but you also can bring down the price. They brought down the price of that car to around $250. It was tremendous.

Notice what’s happening here. It’s not like Ford’s trying to become an interdisciplinary businessperson or scientist. No, he’s just learning from different industries and importing into his own world tactics that worked in other industries. He’s importing them into his world and adopting and editing them for use for his problem. And that’s the core to thinking bigger, whether it’s creating a business, whether it’s being a revolutionary scientist, whether it’s being a revolutionary leader.

What does step five, choice mapping, do?

In Think Bigger: How to Innovate, the alternative to brainstorming that I present is choice mapping. The way to think about choice mapping is just that it is a more efficient and deliberative approach to getting that flash of insight. Rather than waiting around for that flash of insight to happen, perhaps randomly, I am essentially telling you what you can do for your cognitive functioning to have that flash of insight. I’m very structured about it and very deliberative about teaching people how to do it.

The alternative to brainstorming that I present is choice mapping. The way to think about choice mapping is just that it is a more efficient and deliberative approach to getting that flash of insight.

Let me give you an example of how choice mapping works. I’m going to use one of our great heroes. Up until now, we’ve mainly talked about products. But the Think Bigger: How to Innovate method is not just to use for products, big and small. It also explains the ways ideas are formed. That’s true of any idea, including such big ideas as democracy, for example.

Let’s consider Mahatma Gandhi. He was not just an amazing person who did an amazing thing in his lifetime, but he essentially created a technique that we use even now for how to voice discontent when you don’t have power. Now when we analyze somebody like Gandhi, we try to analyze what his childhood was like. We try to analyze what his character was. What was the complexity of his character? Who were the people he knew? What were the ideas that influenced him? All of that is a really interesting part of his narrative. But those are not the elements that made his idea.

Stepping away from his story—the story itself is of course amazing, and everybody should learn it—I want to just focus in on the pieces he brought together to create his idea. He is trying to solve the problem of getting a large group of people who are very different from one another—different in caste, different in religion, different in language—in a bazillion different ways. It’s a very diverse population, the Indian colony. Now he wants to help them get freedom. How do they create a form of rebellion that has some likelihood of success, given that they’re fighting against a mighty power?

First, is there any method that anybody’s ever used to go against powerful entities and win? Turns out he has an example from the Brits themselves: the women’s suffragette movement. Hunger strikes. In fact, Gandhi notes in various writings how the Indians should take a page from the women’s suffragette movement. Then he was influenced by the work of Tolstoy and the communal farms that he created in Russia. In fact, if you look at the original farms that Gandhi created in South Africa, they have many of the same elements that Tolstoy created.

Now Gandhi has the problem of how to bring a bunch of people who are very different from one another to all agree with each other and have a kind of common cause. That’s where, drawing from Tolstoy, he creates the ashram.

Third, how to get people who are naturally suspicious of foreign ideas to adopt the principle of nonviolence and more of a community feeling with one another? That’s where he brings in very traditional garb and very traditional language from Hinduism.

Bring these elements together, and you have Gandhi’s idea of nonviolent civil disobedience. I would say the best demonstration of how he put all these pieces together was the Salt March.

Step six, the final one, you call ‘the third eye.’

The third eye is asking the question, “Do you see what I see?” Imagine at the end of step five, you’ve generated a whole bunch of ideas. Choice mapping can generate a lot more solutions than any other method. They’ll be unique solutions to the problem that you’ve set forth. Now that you’ve picked a solution, and you like it, it’s up in your head. Now the question is, how do I figure it out if it’s worth taking to the next level?

We have a method for that. That method is not to go out and ask people, “Do you like it?” We don’t even know if they know what we’re talking about. What is this thing we want them to either like or dislike? The third eye is learning what others see or hear or experience or imagine as we present to them our idea.

This is not prototyping; this is before that. One of my favorite examples of someone who very effectively used the third eye, without calling it that, was Paul McCartney. I had the honor and privilege of being able to interview him when I was working on my book. We talked about the process he used when creating the song “Yesterday.” The apocryphal story that we often hear is just that he woke up one morning and the tune was in his head; that was it. That’s certainly a true part of the story, but it’s not the whole story.

He woke up one morning with this tune in his head, and he didn’t want to forget the tune. So he put some nonsensical words to the tune, and then he began to hum the tune to people. He wouldn’t ask them, “Hey do you like it?” He would ask them, “Have you ever heard this tune before?” He would hum this tune to lots of people, his fellow band members, other professional musicians, strangers, and friends. Again and again, what he heard was, “Well no. It sounds familiar, but I’ve never heard this tune.” Little by little, as he’s doing this, and he’s watching their reactions, he’s realizing there is some magic to this tune.

This inquiry is not just about discovering yes or no. He’s continuing to iterate, building out his tune. As he’s building it out, he finally gets to the point where he is sitting in a car in Portugal, and he starts coming up with lyrics.

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