Through the looking glass
Back when airlines published magazines for their seat backs, I read an inflight article nestled among the ads for cars and credit cards that I put in a file of stuff to think more about. This one finally rose to the top. I know it has been a while since it was printed in the last year of US Air!
The article was a profile of a chap named Stan Mason. Stan holds patents on the pinless diaper, the squeezable ketchup bottle, the stringless Band Aid package. His energy comes from seeing small frustrating problems (like fitting a square diaper on a round baby bottom) and figuring out shortcuts and improvements to solve or relieve them. His is a theory of small wins that add up to big change, including the financial kind.
Author Diane Cyr reviewed Stan’s approach which began with knowing exactly what problem you wanted to solve. He stayed clear of world hunger or major policy themes—looking at specific pain points for some people. Stan heartily endorsed the question “How?” How do you make herring more appealing to Americans? How do you get more people to plant backyard gardens? “Why” can offer the side road of problem explanation or solution rationale.
I love the How focus—and its inherently positive premise. How do we do it assumes we can do it. It is also empirical. If you can make it work in practice let someone else make it work in theory. How is the best question for innovation of most kinds—attracting those with ideas who want to try them. I also like the clarity of very specific challenges Stan put on his table. How to fit a diaper to a round bottom is not likely to make the list of thought leadership or policy. But for every person who has changed a diaper, it can be far more important. Dare I call this bottoms-up management?
Many of us instinctively go to scale as a measure of importance. We are tackling if not solving major issues. The substitution of the looking glass for the telescope makes great sense if you want to see problems at the smaller literal level. People live in the particulars of life and the pain points they face day to day. Stan illustrates the value of going deep with a small field of view. Please…don’t ask why. Ask how he does that.