3 Techniques for Solving Problems

Let’s start with a bold claim: no one came up with the idea for Facebook.

man with a tangled mess ball

The apocryphal tale is that this genius nerd of an entrepreneur named Mark thought up the idea from his Harvard dorm room, created it, and it blew up. But that story is only true if we apply some serious regression to the curve of reality.

The reality is that Mark Zuckerberg thought of an idea called Facemash, a Hot or Not clone for ranking people’s attractiveness on his college campus, for which he was nearly expelled. Then it was a study tool for art history. Then it was a digital “face book” of those who attended Harvard. Then it had social networking features. Then it was for non-students.

It wasn’t until 8 years after its conception that Facebook introduced the Timeline, which is the way we experience Facebook today.Again ― no one ever had the idea for the thing called Facebook that we use today. It started somewhere else, and “Facebook” is only where it happened to end up.

What’s ideation?

Ideation is a series of processes by which we cultivate ideas. We’re not looking for the One True Idea (TM). We’re looking for lots and lots of ideas, from which we’ll find the best one.

The reason we want quantity over quality is that having a large quantity of ideas relieves the pressure we put on ourselves. Each idea that comes to mind doesn’t need to be very good, because we’ll have lots of ideas. Only one needs to be any good, and that lowers the barriers that prevent us from being creative.

I’ve employed many techniques to help founders come up with ideas, but here are three of the easiest tactics I’ve found for generating a large quantity of ideas very quickly.

Tactic 1: Challenging & Inverting Assumptions

No post on the innovation or startup world would be complete without buzzwords, so we’re starting with disruption. Take the industry you wish to change ―  one where the existing solutions are suboptimal ― and list out every single assumption you make when you think of their products or services. Then, invert each of them with a question: what if the opposite were true?

Assuming we wanted to disrupt in-home cleaning services, we might start with these assumptions:

  • Cleaners come to your house

  • They clean for you

  • They bring their own supplies

  • They charge by service and square footage

  • …and twenty more…

Then invert all of them:

  • Cleaners don’t come to your house

  • They don’t clean for you

  • They don’t bring their own supplies

  • They don’t charge by service and square footage

  • …etc…

Each of these can become a series of ideas. If they don’t charge by the service and square footage, how might they charge? If they don’t bring their own supplies, how might they clean?

Most of these will not be viable, but that’s not the goal. Remember, the goal is to create a huge list of potential iterations, and then to start exploring them. You only need one to be any good.

Tactic 2: Trend Triggers

The second method is to find an X/Y. Think uber for whatever. That is, if you know of a customer who has a problem, you can examine relevant trends in other areas and apply them to their problem.

There are several many sites that list popular trends for different industries and demographics. Pull together a large list of potential trends, and then see how that trend could help create a solution for that customer.

Random recent trends include: monthly subscriptions in health, beauty, and fashion; the sharing economy reducing transaction costs and providing new revenue streams to product owners; and millenials seeing travel as a form of self-improvement.

Returning to our cleaning example, how about a time-shared butler?

Tactic 3: AND what?

This is actually the easiest and quickest of the techniques, and it’s brilliant for creating a large volume of potential offerings around a known thing. Just take that thing, pair it with random other things, and see which combinations are actually ideas.

Let’s say you want to get into the wine business ―  or maybe you’re a winemaker looking for a new way to sell wine. That becomes the first thing: wine. Now, you ask “AND what?” and create a long list of brain seeds:

  • Wine AND movies

  • Wine AND pizza

  • Wine AND vacations

  • Wine AND motorhomes

  • …and twenty more…

Each is easily multiple ideas. Let’s take wine and movies. When I think “movies”, I think theaters and I think Netflix, and there’s an idea ― wine and Netflix: a wine club subscription service that sends you a bottle each week perfectly paired to a movie on your watchlist.

Ideas are easy, and cheap


Ideas are only concepts. They are at best feeble, and at worst hackneyed. We hold ideas close to our hearts and protect them because we feel they are inherently valuable, but ideas are inherently not valuable. You and your execution are valuable. You have to get ideas out of your head and see what you can make them do. That’s why there’s no marketplace on the Internet to buy startup ideas. There’s no money in ideas.

I often hear from aspiring entrepreneurs that they want to found a startup but haven’t because they don’t have an idea yet. And you know what? Startups are hard. Like, crazy hard. But ideas are the easiest part.

That’s because ideas are only where we start; they are not where we end up. Our journey with those ideas is the hard part.

What are you waiting for?

It’s a great tragedy that so many would-be entrepreneurs never get started because they’re waiting for the perfect idea. Because it doesn’t exist.

So pick something, run with it, and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Published almost 3 years ago

Josh David Miller

Josh David Miller

Managing Director // The Right Box

JDM is the founder of The Right Box, where he facilitates the process of innovation with startups and Fortune 100s alike. He and his team help get new ventures to market, innovate on business models, and establish a culture of intrapreneurship. JDM spends his free time as a startup ecosystem builder, connecting founders and funders in the Sacramento area — where is known as that guy wearing unusually colourful shoes.

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