What would it be like growing up with an inventor as a parent? It sounds like a lot of fun. And it was, for Lorraine Marchand. It was also an education that set her on the path to business success.
During our Mind Tools Expert Interview, the U.S. professor, founder and strategist shared with me stories of how her father instilled a problem-solving attitude in her and her brother. This came to fruition when, with his guidance, the youngsters invented a tidying tool for local diners that was quickly adopted and mass produced.
Marchand told me that that experience – at the tender age of 13 – taught her two things. First, that children are boundlessly creative, and as adults, we can all "tap back" into that spirit. And second, that every successful innovation has to solve a problem that’s a genuine pain point for the customer.
In this clip from our conversation, she offers advice on how to home in on the problems that can lead to great innovations. According to Marchand, it’s all about employing your curiosity, developing observation skills, and asking great questions.
Marchand’s innovation process starts with identifying the "right" problem to solve. Sometimes, a problem may look like it’s caused by one thing when, in fact, something quite different is behind it. Other times, we may think there’s no problem at all. We can get used to long wait times and faulty tech.
My interviewee said, "The best problems to solve are the ones that you have personal involvement with." A case in point that I’ve noticed in my own life is the variety of ways that publicly funded doctors’ offices try to meet the huge demand for their services here in the U.K.
Some practices offer patients appointments on a "first come, first served" basis. As each slot fills, availability tightens to the point where patients end up being offered dates that are weeks ahead. But they want action now.
Other offices run a daily appointment book. Call from 8am and hope to grab one of that day’s slots – along with dozens of other patients scrambling for the same thing. You have to prepare yourself for a long wait on the phone, and when you finally get through, you may be told there’s no space that day. Try again tomorrow.
Some practices operate a nurse triage system, with nurses talking to patients before any appointment is made. This may weed out time wasters and simple admin. But, by definition, nurses don’t have the same diagnostic training or experience as doctors. What if they make a wrong call?
I’ve always been impressed by the solution offered by my own healthcare center, which is a mixture of the above. If you want a consultation with a doctor, you can call in the morning and leave your name and number, and a brief description of your issue. Then a senior doctor will call you back quickly, bringing all their authority and medical knowledge to bear. They decide if you need to be seen that day or later, and they can give instant medical advice over the phone as well.
At first glance, the "pain point" in this scenario appears to be the desire to see a doctor. But it’s actually the desire to know if you need to see a doctor. Face time with a doctor when you don’t need it is a nuisance for everyone. So a short call with a senior doctor before an appointment is even made addresses the "right" problem.
During my conversation with Marchand, I was reminded of an event I covered a few years ago in central London. It was a "design hackathon" attended by around 100 teenage girls, who were invited there on a Saturday for a fun day of learning.
The point was to teach them a five-step process to innovation, the first two being researching and defining a suitable problem. Sound familiar? The other steps were: to think through solutions, create a prototype of the best one, and test it with potential users.
The girls were put into groups, each of which had to come up with an innovation by applying those five steps. During the day, they had access to lots of making materials, from cardboard and glue to feathers, straws and balloons. This was for their prototypes.
The solutions they came up with were inspiring, ranging from a magnetic levitation hospital bed, through a smart fridge to help people cook nutritious meals, to a teaching app that allowed users to select their preferred level of language complexity.
I think Marchand would have approved of this event for girls. Women innovators still face unique challenges, and she devotes a whole chapter to this in her book, "The Innovation Mindset," exploring what the sticking points are, why they happen, and how to change things for the better.
"When we look at the companies that are invested in, still only around two or three percent of founders or co-founders are women," she points out.
Her aim is to help "lift women up and get them to think more strategically, creatively, about being innovators and know that this is something that’s available to them."
For a few dozen young women in London, at least, I’m pretty sure that message has landed.
Mind Tools Club members and Mind Tools for Business licensees can listen to my full 30-minute interview with Lorraine Marchand. It comes with a complete transcript so you can easily review all eight practical steps in her innovation model while being inspired by her encouraging and creative attitude.
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Meanwhile, you can read more from me, Rachel Salaman, by searching the Expert Interview blog topic.
Have you seen a problem that no one else has spotted or knows how to fix? What innovative ideas do you have, and how will you test them? Share your innovation successes and failures in the Comments, below!
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