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)