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What I Learned From Grad School About Innovation?

Rainy Window Src: Claudia Dea

Most problems are solved inefficiently. Innovation follows when a problem is researched first.

I spent a fair amount of time in grad school. First, sixteen months on my MSc, and then another forty eight months on my PhD program. Also, I worked as a pro software engineer for 20 hours/week during my MSc days and then full-time during the PhD days. It was quite an undertaking, but I survived and now claiming my bragging rights :-)

This post is about a general problem-solving approach that I internalized as the most valuable lesson from my grad school days. I hope you find it useful. I’ll try and explain the concept using a personal story. Here you go.

Recently, I was discussing plans for the near future with my wife, Shahana. She’s an engineer. In the past, Shahana worked in the telecom industry as a network planner for a few years. Then, she decided to take an extended maternity leave to stay with our two little kids, Shopoth and Shera. Now, honestly, she’s had enough and seriously contemplating a return to work. Except, she’s unsure about what career to choose that she’d really enjoy.

Given this vague problem of finding a new career, she felt lost for a while. As a true supportive husband, I decided to be her man and gave her an earful!

Silly jokes apart, we decided to set the context first by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Why is she looking for a new career?
  2. Why not remain in the old career?
  3. What new career options exist?
  4. Where are the opportunities?
  5. Who knows more about those?
  6. How does she get a job in the preferred area?

After spending a few days of research, she developed a very clear understanding of the problem and the initial vagueness of the situation was mostly wiped clean resulting in a few clear constraints. From a job portal, Shahana then listed available job requirements from a number of open positions matching her criteria. After consolidation of the requirements, the gap was clear. It was obvious that she’d need to develop essential new skills to qualify for the jobs. As she acquires the new skills, she already knows the evaluation. If this doesn’t work, she can repeat the same process to either improve her chances or choose an alternate career path entirely.

This was a direct application of the problem-solving framework that I learned from grad school. Here’s a nerdy version of the framework:

  Given a problem
    1. Ask the Wh questions -> list constraints
    2. Research -> list existing solutions
    3. Is the problem already solved? -> If yes, stop
    4. Innovate, fill in the gaps.
    5. Evaluate

In real life, most problems are deceptive. We think we already know the best solution based on our past experience and go straight to #4 leaving all other parts out. Even if going straight to #4 is actually a wise move, it only becomes an innovation with a tiny impact, as it doesn’t become available at step 3 for others to leverage.

A large number of problems can be solved at step 3, by leveraging a solution or a mix of multiple solutions that already exist. Even when problems get past step 3, it’s highly likely that the gap is smaller than the extent of the whole problem. So, an innovation can focus only on solving the gap, which offers speed and intelligent reuse.

This post is so prosaic already. But if you’re still with me, I’ll make it even more textbook like by giving you a couple of practice problems. Go ahead and apply my 5-step problem solving approach:

  1. Jane is a musician, a prodigy so to speak. She’s been invited to talk about music as a therapy. She’s not good at speaking, but this is a big opportunity. What does she do?
  2. Mike is a young startup CEO. He’s very good at business and technology. He needs a lawyer to take care of the legal matters. How does he hire the best lawyer possible?