Creating new worlds vs. the myth of problem solving

The term problem-solving assumes you are adopting someone else’s view of  the world.

Despite its popularity, the current obsession with problem solving is way off the mark. Ditto finding out what your customers want and giving it to them. This is fine for fine tuning and tweaking what already works, but it’s not what changes the world. Not even close.

As Henry Ford reportedly said, “If I’d listened to my customers, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Here’s why. The problem-solving orientation is based on accepting someone else’s view of the world, like that of your fourth grade teacher. A problem is, by my definition, a situation that has already been defined, usually by someone else.

School is a good example. Here’s a problem, says the teacher. Solve it. Get an A. Please the teacher. This is really about social acceptance—not objectivity and creativity, the two forces that change the world.

The people who change the world in all fields aren’t trying to get an A from the powers that be, including the apparent rules of the current marketplace. These people are driven by curiosity to understand and to create.

Mozart had his moments but was buried in a pauper’s grave. The careers of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t kick in until after they died. Shakespeare made his money as an investor in the Globe Theatre, not as a playwright and actor.

Gregor Mendel’s genetics experiments were ignored for decades. Nikola Tesla was often out-maneuvered by Edison, a ruthless character who staged the public execution of a circus elephant in a misleading stunt to malign the concept of alternating current.

It was Alexander Graham Bell’s wife Mabel who insisted on the patent application for the telephone. Bell was a serial inventor, a lone genius and brilliant collaborator. His wife was the business mind.

What creative people are doing is creating new worlds. They realize, more than the rest of us, that reality is not fixed.

This is the key insight in a recent article in Fortune magazine by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: This Ancient Chinese Text Is the Manual for Business Disruptors: And no, it’s not Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” [April 1, 2016].

A few extracts:

When disruption became the rallying cry for innovators a decade ago, they seized on ancient work of Chinese philosophy to prove their point. In Sun-Tzu’s Art of War, a new class of business disrupters claimed to have found the original manual.

They were right about ancient Chinese philosophy, but wrong about the manual.

As it turns out, another text from China, the Laozi, actually offers a much more expansive—and revolutionary—vision of innovation. Like the Art of War, the Laozi is a 2000-year-old text.

The Art of War says that victory comes to a general—read, a business leader—who avoids following conventional strategies and instead uses surprising tactics to unsettle a seemingly dominant opponent… But it assumes that the disrupter has to take into account things like the actual terrain on which he is fighting and that he must treat his adversary as stable and unchanging.

The Laozi, by contrast, questions the very idea that we should try to come up with innovative strategies within a defined, predictable arena… Instead, the Laozi assumes a world in constant flux and motion.

The key lies in understanding one basic idea: although we tend to think of things as stable because that makes them easier to grasp, every situation that ever arises actually results from interactions between sets of constantly shifting, interweaving worlds.

Laozian innovation comes from an awareness that if everything is composed of moving parts, subtle actions allow one to alter or even make the world into something new.


[With CNN] Ted Turner … crushed the idea that the news belonged to a few TV channels and a few hours of the day, and thus helped pave the way for the day when everyone can assume news is delivered instantly and around the clock.

[With Amazon] Jeff Bezos did not disrupt the book industry or even several industries. He created a new world where those industries became less relevant because a large amount of shopping would now be done through this one website.

With the iPhone, Steve Jobs created a new world simply through completely reinventing a daily object [the phone] we already used and carried around all the time.

It’s that we don’t realize that we are entering these new worlds created by others that makes them so powerful.

Indeed, these new creations are more platforms or delivery vehicles than products or services. CNN carries “the news.” Amazon is really the ultimate logistics company. Apple provides the opportunity to create.

Besides delivering atoms and bits, these platforms are their own worlds. In addition to efficiency, they offer something else we humans love. Call it a feeling, a certain tone. We line up to buy.

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