To Find a Better Solution, Ask a Better Question
Stuck on a hard problem? The director of MIT’s Leadership Center says you might just need to reframe it.
Trace the origin story of any creative breakthrough and it is possible to find the point where someone changed the question. I have seen this as a longtime student of innovation; the stories in that realm abound.
For example, consider the origins of the snapshot. Photography had been invented well before 1854, when Kodak founder George Eastman was born, and he took an interest in it as a young man. But as he prepared to take an international trip at age 24, Eastman found it was too much of an undertaking to pack along the elaborate and expensive equipment. The technology for capturing photographic images had steadily improved over the years in terms of speed and quality, but the assumption remained that this was a process for professionals, or at least for serious and well-heeled enthusiasts. Eastman wondered: Could photography be made less cumbersome and easier for the average person to enjoy?
It was a promising enough question to motivate Eastman to dive into research mode, and exciting enough that he could recruit others to help. By age 26, he had launched a company, and eight years later, in 1888, the first Kodak camera came to market. Not only did it replace wet emulsion plates with new dry film technology, but it also featured what managers today call a “business model innovation.” There was no longer an expectation that customers would acquire the skills and the setup for developing the film. Instead, after shooting a whole roll of 100 pictures, they would send the compact camera back to the company for developing.
The Kodak was a smash hit, but Eastman’s question lived on. By 1900, he and his colleagues launched the Brownie, a $1 camera simple enough for a child to operate and durable enough for soldiers to take into the field.
Today, as I sit in the midst of MIT’s buzzing hive of innovators, I see plenty of people arriving at and articulating questions with the same power to excite the imagination and engage other clever people’s efforts. For the moment, I’ll name one: Jeff Karp. He’s a bioengineer in charge of a lab devoted to biomimicry. If that term is…