Innovation’s reductive seduction

It happens all the time. Your CXO attends a conference and hears about a problem in a different domain – one where your organization has little experience.

Suddenly you find yourself researching and attending meetings exploring this amazing new opportunity. And your gut is telling you …. this … is … a … bad … idea.

I thought about this situation while reading The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems by Courtney Martin. Martin rails against “save-the-world” global social impact projects which often do more harm than good.

An example is the infamous PlayPump project. The Roundabout PlayPump uses energy from a merry-go-round to pump water. No electricity needed! Everyone wins when children “play” AND pump water, right?

Unfortunately not. Merry-go-rounds are fun because they keep spinning from centrifugal momentum. Pumps require continuous force and children have to push them for hours. Unused PlayPumps fell into disrepair and left the villagers worse off.

This isn’t a unique story. America’s brightest are seduced into “solving” global social problems instead of tackling domestic problems like gun violence, mass incarceration, or poverty.

So why are millions wasted by well-intentioned Americans who keep making the same mistake?

We think other people’s problems are easier to solve than our own

We simply don’t know what we don’t know. Getting clean water to a remote village sounds easier and more rewarding than reforming US prisons.

Businesses are also seduced by other people’s problems

Unfortunately too many businesses fall into the same trap. We view problems in our own industry as intractably hard.

Customers have no money…
Competition is too high…. 
Regulation and policy won’t allow it…
… and best of all …
“We already tried that and it didn’t work“

Our own problems are messy. They’re uninteresting and take too long to solve. Who wants to develop innovation solutions for these problems? Yuck!

But new ideas solving different problems? That idea we talked about at the last staff meeting? Now that sounds interesting…

Assuming unfamiliar problems are easier to solve is the first step towards innovation failure

How to keep your organization focused on real innovation opportunities.

We all look externally for innovation opportunities instead of focusing on the icky problems we understand. These instincts are human nature but don’t have to lead to failures. We can keep our companies focused on innovating around our core competencies.

It won’t work because “we already tried it”? Remind everyone how real innovation happens.

Many companies miss innovation opportunities because the leadership doesn’t realize how many failures are needed before achieving a real breakthrough.

What do Dropbox, Facebook, and Uber all have in common? Other entrepreneurs had tried solving the same problems and failed. Venture Capitalists lost millions for decades trying to solve the challenges of file sharing. When Drew Houston pitched Dropbox to Boston VCs none invested in “another file-syncing thing”.

So why did Dropbox succeed where so many other hard-working, well-funded startups failed? Good execution AND timing. Dropbox launched just as iPhones, iPads and the consumerization of IT started taking off. Suddenly the demand for seamless file sharing exploded.

Every infrastructure company in the Fortune 500 was in a position to do something innovative in file syncing in 2007. But who would dare try? There had been so many failures.

That’s how real innovation works – the same ugly problems are tackled again and again until someone figures it out. Why can’t it be your company?

A great idea? Ask “why us”?

Your CXO may have an amazing idea based on a problem he or she heard over cocktails at a conference. It could be the greatest idea in the world – but is your company the right organization to execute on the idea?

(Hint: the answer is usually “no”).

Your company has the world’s greatest assets for innovating on problems related to your core competency like:

  • Access to beta customers

  • Domain expertise

  • Proprietary data

Just imagine a new competitor from an unrelated industry trying to solve your industry’s hardest problems without these assets.

Why surrender your best advantages to work on unfamiliar problems? You can prevent a lot of distractions by asking, “why us”?

Foster beginner minds – especially through pilot projects with startups

Your new employees will see easy solutions to problems – and almost certainly underestimate the complexity. Most companies crush this beginner enthusiasm by telling them why nothing will work.

In a perfect world you could change your company’s culture to encourage beginner thinking. Unfortunately cultural challenges can take years to change. A more actionable path is developing a core competency by doing pilots with startups solving problems in your industry.

Startups – especially early-stage ones – working on problems related to your industry are equally clueless. They try to overcome naivety by relentlessly pursuing solutions to your hairiest problems.

You can save them years of pain by helping them understand the problem better. Their innovation timeline will accelerate with access to customers, domain experts and data.

The startups take the risk and you help reduce the odds of failure – a win-win.


Innovation is hellishly hard – even the world’s best investors only get it right 1/10 of the time. You can increase your company’s odds by investing in the projects with the highest probability of success – and this means resisting the reductive seduction of chasing problems outside your core domain.

Photo credit: uditha wickramanayaka

Shane Reiser