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The Secret Weapon Of The Most Inventive Minds

A Critical Lesson From The Most Successful Entrepreneurs

Here are three quick questions. See if you can spot what they have in common.

Why did Howard Schultz focus on the coffee experience when his peers were trying to find cheaper, better-tasting beans?

Why did Sara Blakely come up with Spanx when her job was selling fax machines?

Why did Steve Jobs dive into music and end up with his fingerprints all over iTunes when he was supposed to be thinking about the next great computer?

Let me tell you what I think those questions have in common.

I’ve noticed something about the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs and business people; they see frustration as opportunity—a chance to do something better, cheaper or faster.

Howard Schultz was frustrated that there were more than 20,000 meeting places in Europe posing as coffee shops and nothing similar in the United States. Steve Jobs was frustrated by how hard it was to download and play single songs, and Sara Blakely was tired of getting uncomfortable and unflattering results from her undergarments in the hot Florida sun.

Schultz, Blakely and Jobs didn’t complain about these things (at least not for long). They envisioned a different outcome and made it happen—through invention, acquisition or both.

Just think about things that have frustrated you lately. For example, have you noticed:

  • The only people who win in divorce cases are the lawyers?
  • There are no truly healthy fast food choices?
  • You have to donate bodily fluids to get insurance?
  • How painful it is to give any size dog a bath?
  • There are way too many choices to make in the supermarket?
  • How ridiculously arduous it is to find and then go through the admission process so that your child can get into the college that is best for him or her?
  • Retirees are scared of retirement homes?
  • Getting a loan is impossible when you need one?
  • Automated phone systems annoy everyone to no end?
  • How many distractions there are, all the time, everywhere?

My bet is that you have noticed most of these things. Now here’s a tougher question: Did you just complain or did you hatch a plan to make things better?

If your answer was the latter, you have the makings of an entrepreneur.

WW__D?

OK, you have identified a problem that many people have. What is the next step? Well, ask yourself: What would Schultz, Blakely or Jobs do?

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As we have seen with Starbucks, Spanx and iTunes, there are three ingredients to successful innovation:

First, there must be a need or an insight. What problem does this idea solve? Is the problem important enough and big enough to elicit action and result in the required amount of cash flow? Have you identified the precise needs you’re fulfilling? Often a new product or service can fill many needs. You want to focus on the biggest, most pressing one.

By noticing what is making you frustrated, you have the insight, so you are already one-third of the way through the process.

The best entrepreneurs and best companies are adept at creating hundreds of insights, and then they rank them to identify the small few that would make the biggest impact to their company and the market.

OK, with compelling insight in hand, where do you go from there?

Next (not first), you need the idea. For many of us Idea Monkeys, this is the fun part. What product, service or business model fixes the problem in an efficient, novel and proprietary way? You’re likely not the first person to notice this challenge. How have existing ideas failed to hit the mark?

Starbucks, Spanx and iTunes solved the existing problems in a new and different way. After all, coffee shops, body-shaping garments, and ways of purchasing and listening to music had already been invented.

Finally, once you have the insight and idea, it is time to create the experience and communication that connects the insight with your idea.

So to change the world, you need to create the synchronized intersection of the need (insight), the idea (product, service or business model) and the experience that connects the two.

This simple formula is easy to describe but perilously difficult to achieve. It turns out that ideas are easy, insights are easy and experiences are easy. Getting them all to work in unison? For many, it’s really, really hard. This is why most new products fail.

To use another metaphor, think of the three components as a three-legged stool. Without one leg, the stool falls and so, too, will your innovation initiative. You may have a great team of brilliant idea people, but unless you can get them to understand this simple concept, they will fail.

Still, you are well on your way if you have spotted something that makes you, and a lot of other people, frustrated. Now, who wants to fix the college application process?

Article originally published August 13, 2014, on Forbes.com

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