The philosopher Karl Popper wrote that “there is only one way to science – or to philosophy, for that matter: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it and to live with it happily, till death do ye part ….”
Echoing Popper, I would submit that the only way to successful innovation is to find a problem you love. Hopefully, the problem that inspires you is the direct object of your innovation, as electric lighting was to Thomas Edison and personal computing was to Steve Jobs. But it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps the problem that inspires you is something more personal – like proving your worth or boosting your income – and the innovation project is a means to that end.
But whether the problem you love is the direct or indirect object of your innovation, the point is that it inspires. Innovation is hard. Trying to create something new takes tremendous energy and grit. To achieve that level of energy, to maintain that degree of tenacity, you need to love the problem you are attempting to solve.
Another word for “the problem you love” is mission. Do you know your mission? Do you have it written down? If so, then seek your big idea within the boundary stones of that vision. If not, then challenge yourself to find a problem you love – a problem that inspires you – by answering questions like these:
1. What projects inspire your sacrificial effort? If you look back over the past five years of your life, where have you found yourself making sacrificial investments of time and effort? What were the projects that you just couldn’t quit? That got you out of bed early? That kept you up late? Make a list of these projects and reflect deeply on what it was about them that drew out your above-and-beyond effort. Where we invest our time – especially when those investments are sacrificial – is a great source of insight into “the problems we love.”
2. What are the problems you notice? Not everyone sees the same thing. Therefore, it tells us something about our values and priorities when we simply make a list of the problems we notice. What about you? If you were the CEO of your organization, the VP of your department, the leader of your team … what would be the key problems you would want to solve?
3. What is the story you would like to be able to tell 3 - 5 years from now? Imagine a specific event approximately 3 - 5 years in the future such as your birthday or a New Year’s Eve celebration. What is the story you would like to be able to tell your family and friends about a major problem you had solved?
Two final tips:
1. Write it down. When you catch even the faintest and most tentative glimmer of insight into your mission, commit it to writing. That can be something as simple as a statement that reads, “The key problem(s) I am trying to solve are: (problem 1, problem 2, problem 3, etc.)”
2. Review and revise it frequently. Your first attempt to write a mission statement will probably miss the mark. Give yourself permission to hold your answer lightly, and to edit it frequently, until it finds its proper footing in the bedrock of your core values.