All inventions start with inspiration about something that needs improvement, or just someone coming up what they think people would like. The Java Jacket, that short two or three inch corrugated piece that keeps the coffee cup from being too hot is an example of a problem that someone decided to solve. The roller blades are an example of someone coming up with an idea that people will like. The inventor thought it would be great if people could practice ice skating all year long.
The question is now how to move from the idea to an invention that will really work. Thomas Edison’s famous quote is that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” and that principle also applies for inventions. So just how do you go about applying that 99% perspiration? This article is about phase one of the process, going through the process to determine what is the best first approach to deliver your solution. This phase is really a five step process. 1) understanding all aspects of the problem or opportunity from an end-user point of view; 2) doing a search of available technologies; 3) brainstorming; 4) choose your best choice; and 5) look for your second best choice.
Building You Knowledge Base
Have you ever noticed that you come up with ideas while you are sleeping, driving or doing something besides than trying to think of ideas. That is because you have a head full of ideas and sometimes you synthesize them when you least expect to. The key point here though is that you need your head full of information in order to do this effectively. So you need to find out as much as you can about your customer and possible solutions if you want to have a real winner pop into your consciousness.
1. Understand All Aspects from an End User Point of View
My first invention related job was with the inventor of the first reclining dental chair. When he came up with the idea, he started by spending whole days in dentist offices watching the dentist work. He kept asking the dentists, “Why are you doing that?” Great inventions most often come when people understand all aspects of a situation, including what people do now to solve the problem and how current products work. Understanding what the most important aspect of the problem lets you focus on a solution that will have a big wow factor.
2. Doing a Search on Available Technologies
One of the great services inventor clubs offer is to critique ideas, where inventors share ideas and how they could be done better. Sometimes clubs will do this even for existing products. The advantage to doing this is that inventors can get exposure to a wide variety different technology and tactics for solving problems. You should participate at inventors clubs if there is one in your area.
If you don’t have a nearby club that suits your needs, you should go to trade shows where people sell products to companies, retailers and distributors and just investigate how products are made. When you see something interesting, ask someone in the booth what process they use to make the product. Try to attend all the trade shows that come into your area for a few months so you get fairly familiar with all the types of processes that could be used to make your product.
Creating Your Idea
Your knowledge base is the foundation where great ideas succeed. But that doesn’t mean the process is logical, or that you should follow a prescribed checklist to create your great idea. Now it the time you let go and let all the possibilities come out before choosing the idea that you think makes the most sense. Roger Von Oech, author of the great book A Whack on the Side of the Head states “nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one we have.” One idea leaves you vulnerable to locking onto it and not considering any other, and possibly better, options.
Brainstorming works best with a group of people, some with technical knowledge and some with knowledge of the end use. They don’t need to know anything about your idea, which for brainstorming is to come up with a better way to do something. No ideas are bad, and you don’t want the group to choose the idea, you only want a list of 50 different ways that can solve the problem, different approaches. Let people comment on what they like or don’t like about ideas and have someone keep track of what is being said. Wild and crazy, practical or impractical, possible or impossible, it doesn’t matter. These sessions are just to help you break out of the box of traditional thinking. Don’t go on without at least 10, preferably more, ways to solve the problem.
4. Choose Your Best Choice
Now is the time to think things over, not quickly, maybe even taking a month to decide what to do. First write down the ideas that do what the end-user wants, even if you don’t think you can do them. Write them in sequential order, first being the one the end-user will like best. The product ideas that will make the end user say wow are the best ideas. Second write down the ideas by what will be the easiest ones to manufacturer again listing the easiest one first. Finally write down the ideas by what you think they will cost to make the, the cheapest method being first. Finally get a list of competitive products in the market and what they cost. Now just let all this information stay in your head for awhile and you will start to lean towards some combination of ideas that you feel are best. There really is no best way to do this, and each person may decide on different best choices – which is why inventors that work in groups of two or three often do best – but in the end each person will decide on one best choice, which is your starting point for the invention.
5. Look for Your Second Best Choice
Now this next step – ruling your best choice off the table – which is an idea from von Oech’s book “A Whack on the Side of The Head” may not seem appropriate, I’ve found it is immensely useful. First of all, your first selection is typically the safest most practical solution that is most likely not going to get the high wow factor. It is the off- beat, chancier product that is more likely to get people’s attention. So the right answer (isn’t that how you looked at your first choice?) is now off and you need to come up with three other possible solutions, which means you might change your criteria, might dig a little deeper into what the end-user wants or might look at totally different ways to produce the product. Many times when I have tested my second choices with end-users, they preferred it, it was different, not so practical and showed out of the box thinking. Looking for a second or third best choice can often leave you to the best choice.
One Last Story
One of my most successful new products was a new dental chair, which took over 50% market share less than 12 months after introduction. We had the product but it was a little lackluster, so we sent a person to a dental office who had never sold, designed or built a dental chair. He came back and said when the dental chair back does down, the patient’s head moves backwards and the dentists has to move all the equipment back to where the head is. His question was “Why don’t you keep the patient’s head in the same vertical plane.” Well we did that with a feature we called compensating traverse and the product went from being lackluster to a sizzling best seller. Out of the box thinking worked just fine.