On Innovation and Ideas

I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation and how it is achieved. This is the question that I would like to discuss here.

Innovation and relation to ideas

An idea is something more general than innovation. Most people can generate new ideas at will. Simply gather a few people and brainstorm for a bit and you’ll end up with a host of new ideas very quickly.

Innovation, however, is at an entirely different level. A new idea is the seed that innovation is born from, but not all new ideas lead to innovation. Innovation requires the idea to be novel in some way. Furthermore, innovation includes the execution of the initial idea leading to some greater good or improvement.

Wikipedia defines “Innovaton” as:

Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services. Source

This definition makes it very clear why most startups fail for example. The common believe in startup culture is to look for new ideas, when what we really look for is innovation. Not that this definition is anything new but it’s worth keeping in mind.

The empty sheet of paper problem

So imagine you’re sitting at your desk. In front of you an empty sheet of paper. All that separates you from a successful startup and great fortune is to write down an idea that will lead to great innovation. So why don’t you do it? Why are we not able to easily come up with new ideas that generate innovation? Why are most ideas that we come up with (in groups or alone) worthless?

Of course some ideas we come up are actually good ones that just fail in the implementation stage. Still, most ideas that Paul Graham called Sitcom ideas won’t ever lead to innovation, yet they can look incredibly promising at first.

Problem vs. Solution

For any given idea we can use our imagination to extrapolate the original idea to something incredible great that will be appreciated by many users. We can think of so many features and so many things that will be incredible awesome. However, the fallacy here is that we start our reasoning from the end of the product development - the final solution.

Therefore, the problem is that we think in terms of solutions and not problems. The issue with this is that for every problem there exists a domain of infinite number of solutions. However, only a handful will actually satisfy the user who is to benefit if the problem is solved. So, if we think in terms of solutions then we are guaranteed to be able to connect any given solution back to its initial problem. This in turn will lead us to believe that we have actually solved the users problem - when in reality we didn’t.

Why is the solution domain so big?

There are multiple reasons why the solution domain for a given problem is so vast. First, the problem at hand is seldom fully understood in the beginning. Leading us to think that a given solution could solve the problem when in reality we’re missing or misinterpreting some crucial part. Second, the problem is usually defined very superficially and only analyzed in a static way - detached from the rest of the world. In the end we’re almost always dealing with users - real humans. Humans are affected by many things such as psychological factors and also trends. Third, even if we limit our view to only the logical problem domain, then the execution of an idea still depends on external factors such as the economy our own resources and other factors such as luck, the weather, etc.

The Problem with the Problem Domain

So you see, if we reason in the solution domain then we’re almost guaranteed to make something useless. Honestly, this is nothing new and you’ve probably heard this advice from many startup blogs already. So let’s have a closer look at the problem domain.

Let’s say you’ve taken all this advice to heart and try to reason in the problem domain. You sit down again with a new empty sheet of paper and try to come up with a problem. However, soon enough you will realize that it’s very very hard to think in terms of problems.

The hard part is not coming up with problems - there are enough e.g. climate change, divide between rich / poor, loneliness, etc. The difficulty is to think of a way to attempt the problem and come up with a way to execute the idea. It’s also much harder or impossible to see if you’ll succeed and if it’s worth solving the problem.

All of a sudden the shiny fluffy world of sensational solutions has turned into a gloomy and depressing though problem domain.

We’re back to square one and have to figure out a way to think in terms of problems rather than solutions.

Where do great ideas come from?

By now we’ve figured out that we can neither think in terms of solutions nor are we able to think in terms of problems to find a new great idea that leads to innovation.

If you take a closer look at all great ideas from our time such as Google, Windows, Facebook, Youtube, Bitcoin then you can observe that neither of these ideas were completely new. Sure, these great ideas added something new to existing solutions but they weren’t created out of thin air. Before Google, there were other search engines, the novelty of Google was the way they presented their search engine (clean user experience) and also their algorithm. Before Windows, there was Mac. Before Facebook there were other social websites (such as Friendsters) that were experimenting with this new medium. Before Youtube people cumbersomly shared videos and pictures manually and with links. This shows that there was a solution for each of these problems before the new great idea was born.

Even better, non of these products were created in a vacuum. Many of them actually had kind of an “add-on” spirit in the beginning. Google initially powered Yahoos search under the hood, before they launched their own search service and started to overtake Yahoo. Youtube initially didn’t catch on, it was only after they added a way for MySpace users to embed videos from Youtube into their MySpace posts that the site took off like a rocket. Microsoft was actually not supposed to be building their own OS but was a contractor for Apple before they decided to launch their own OS.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that innovation must build on past solutions to be successful. In fact, any system that is to succeed has to start small, so it can grow and evolve into a much bigger more powerful system. It’s very hard, costly and often impossible to create a complex system upfront. We always have to iterate and let the system evolve. Imagine global innovation as being yet another system that continually gets more complex over time and evolves in a way that benefits the users.


What we can learn from these observations is that:

  1. Thinking in the solution domain has an infinite number of answers but it’s not guaranteed that they connect to a problem
  2. Thinking in the problem domain is very hard and might not be effective.
  3. Innovation is iterative. Every new iteration builds on a past state
  4. If innovation is iterative so should be ideas. Because ideas are nothing but the seed of innovation

This means that it’s a good idea to start with thinking about current products and their solutions. We have to analyse what problem todays products solve and how they solve it. The goal of this is to take the product which connects a working solution with an existing problem, analyse it and then find a new evolved solution for the problem.

In the follow up post, I describe a potential framework for analyzing current products and also evolving the initial idea to generate innovation. The post is called The 3 Dimensions Analysis to Innovation.