Innovate What You Know?

Here’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a fair bit recently – are we more innovative when we focus on solving our own problems? As Matt put it on the 37 Signals, there’s a strong argument for designing what you know:

I know it’s not always possible, but, when it is, pick something to work on that you’re around all the time. Something that bugs you. Something that you’ve been paying attention to for years. Solve a problem that you yourself experience. Design what you know.

Here’s an example – Jane McGonigal explaining her latest, very personal, game:

If you’ve run across McGonigal before, you’ll know that she builds games designed to solve big problems. I think that one of the reasons that her games are so innovative is that she has developed a deep understanding of how games work, and, more importantly, of what gamers get out of playing. This has allowed her to design games that popular, but which also serve a greater purpose. Check out the summary of her most recent game Evoke for an example of this.

Up until this new game, SuperBetter, she has been focusing on solving big problems, not her own. Will the new game be better because it is more personal for her? I’m not sure – I think this is an innovation paradox:

we have to understand that not everyone is like us, and we need some kind of process for learning how they differ and what they need. So we have to get outside of our own head. On the other hand, we also have to be willing at times to ditch our processes and rely on our own good judgment. So we have to ignore what everyone else says and stick with what we know ourselves.

How can we do both?

There is a strong argument for sticking with what you know best. You are much more conversant with the problem, and with the issues that people in your situation face. The key question then becomes: how many others are in a situation like yours? If there are a lot, then this is a good strategy. But what if your situation is genuinely unique?

I’m not sure what the answer is – here’s a story that illustrates some of the potential pitfalls with innovating what you know.

In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the answer to this question:

When we’re innovating, is it better to focus on solving our own problems, or should we focus more on other peoples’ problems?

(thanks to the Worldchanging blog for the pointer to her talk)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “Innovate What You Know?

  1. I’m in love with Jane McGonigal.

    I think you’re right about stepping outside of our own heads. One super-high manager explained it this way – we’ve only just begun to get our heads round the idea of getting our managers to think for themselves. And now we’re grappling with the idea of getting them to think like other people too.

    This was when we were talking about using Business Wargames to encourage what he called an ‘allocentric’ viewpoint.

    I was pitching the idea to him from the prospect of limited prescience – particpants can explore a number of possible futures and select from the ‘best’, which, I suppose, is what prognostication is all about.

    I have a question: have you ever taken part in any innovation wargames? And – please please please – have your or has anybody you know ever heard of a better way of putting it than ‘wargames’? The semantic space occupied by ‘simulation’ is somewhere in a different room. . .

  2. I know that Matt Perez from Nearsoft has some experience with innovation games & speaks positively about them as a being a pretty useful exercise.

  3. Tim, you really practice what you preach about connecting ideas and people together!

    Simon, as Tim mentioned Innovation Games ( are pretty much what you describe. Myself and another fellow in our company are trained facilitators. Not to do it for a living, but rather to use within our company and to help our clients establish a culture of innovation and it has worked out great in both contexts. This technology let’s people experiment in a “safe” environment and experimentation and learning is what innovation is all about.

    For example, you could use one of the games, Remember the Future, to “explore a number of possible futures.” Several other games are meant for including customers into the strategy process in a natural way (as opposed to traditional focus groups).

    I wrote a post on how Innovation Games can be a key technology for more effective leadership and democratic organizations (

    For more information, there’s a book by Luke Hohman that describes 12 of the games (

  4. Tim,
    Matt tweeted this and so I had to check it out. Great site. I’m really enjoying your thought-provoking perspectives. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    I think that humans are inherently and naturally creative. We solve problems. Sometimes the motivation for solving a problem comes from our own experience, from our own problems, for our own perception of reality. For example, a few weeks ago I had to fix a cabinet screw that had become striped because of repeated opening and closing. Not sure what to do, because the wood was not really wood, but particle board, I ended up settling on wooden matchsticks and glue. Problem solved (at least for now – time will tell :-).

    At other times the motivation for solving problems comes from others. This happens quite naturally in business, when we’re creating products and services for others. The good news is that we can leverage serious games, like Innovation Games(R), to help us gain the deep insights and understanding of our customers problems that motivate teams to create amazing solutions.

    And at times, the quest to solve our own problems results in solutions that resonate with others, and entire companies are born. That’s the simple story about Innovation Games – I invented the games to solve my own problems in understanding customers, and to make a decade-long story very short, enough other people are finding value in the games that we’ve got a nice company.

    So, why do you make the distinction? Does it really matter if your inspiration in problem solving is from your own personal experience or from a deep understanding of the problems of others (or the more likely case – a mix of the two)?

    I’ll simplify it. I think that when innovating you need to focus on solving a problem that someone cares enough about solving that you both have sufficient motivation to overcome the obstacles and an appropriate reward to celebrate your journey. (Note: the reward could be financial, social, psychological, etc. – It just has to be suitable).

    Fun stuff, and, thanks for giving me something useful to think about!


    Luke Hohmann
    CEO, The Innovation Games® Company
    lhohmann ‘ a t ‘ The seriously fun way to do serious work — seriously.

  5. Thanks, Matt (and Luke) for sharing thoughts on Innovation Games.

    Of course, I know the Innovation Games concept and the site (though there seems to have been a fairly comprehensive update since I last visited). But I never thought of your Innovation Games as Wargames, but you’re right. [Purpose] Games works well – and encourages me as the designer/facilitator not to get locked into a teams x turns x counsel of wise referees mentality.

    Do you know the Strategic Play guys from Germany?

    They use Lego and play for strategy/innovation facilitation. Seems very cool to me (they’re @jenshoffman @cuxdu @strategicplay on The Twitter – they do English and German tweets)

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments everyone – I think that collectively they probably say more than the original post did…

  7. Tim –
    You’re most welcome. It is a sign of a good post when the comments are also good!

    Simon –
    I’m not aware of the Strategic Play guys, but I am aware of the Lego Serious Play initiative. All of this contributes to the growing awareness that “play” is important in problem solving. Too bad, too, as I just taught a 2-day IG course in Munich and facilitated a set of games on the role of the Chief Intellectual Property Officer at the IP Business Congress in Munich. Details here:


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