Flirting With Ideas | Tania De Jong AM

Vienna. 1926 and Slawa Dulnig was looking forward to a pleasant Sunday walk in the gardens of the Kunst Historisches Museum, a favourite haunt. Except that the prospect on this May morning with its ominous looking clouds was not so inviting — and so to prepare for the likely showers she took a heavy umbrella with her.She takes her all frustration on her notebook. Why on earth must I carry this clumsy thing? They should invent a small foldable umbrella that could be put in a handbag’. A great idea — but ‘they’ hadn’t yet done it and so Slawa remedied the situation.

She was an a sculptress and giving a shape to the ideas. She experimented with the notion, sketched designs and realised that to fit in her bag the umbrella would not only have to be small, it would need a folding mechanism. Where else had she seen something like that? A flash of insight and she was off peering excitedly into shop windows and talking to the owners of businesses specialising in window blinds. And she’d need some kind of frame, lightweight, to give shape — so another shopping expedition to stores specialising in lampshades.

Just like one of her sculptures, prototype took physical form and her experiment continued. Having tested them out she patented her idea — by now called the ‘Flirt’ — and lodged it in the Austrian Patent Office on September 19th, 1929. The world’s first folding umbrella was born and these days around 500 million of its descendants are sold each year.

Sometimes it’s not about starting from scratch but to adapt those things that are already there. In 1940 Joe Stevenson and many others like him was carrying a lot of responsibility on his twenty-one-year-old shoulders. One of a few fighters pilots he was flying every day trying to defend the skies over Kent and Sussex from waves of attacks. His plane was the Supermarine Spitfire, the sleek aerodynamically fast offspring of Reginald Mitchell’s earlier work designing high performance seaplanes to win the Schneider Trophy. Mitchell’s efforts had helped shape a beautiful flying machine. Except- as Joe who discovered his cost it contain some flaws that Mitchell’s efforts had helped shape a beautiful flying machine. Except — as Joe nearly discovered to his cost — it had a couple of flaws which Mitchell hadn’t fully covered in his design. Like being able to see behind you without having to turn your head. Not a problem if you are joy-riding the skies but the pretty serious if you are in a dogfight and need to know fast when someone is on your tail.

Joe has a lot in common with Slawa even if the worlds of umbrellas and fighter pilots seem far apart. First of all he wants to a solution for this. First of all he’s got a high incentive to innovate — he wants a solution to his problem. And he’s not afraid to experiment, to improvise, try out something to see if it works. He thinks about his beloved MG sports car and the way his rear view mirror works and decides to try and fit something similar inside his cockpit.

These are isolated cases they’re the stuff of everyday innovation. But due to frustration we get our mind stuck and could not find new solution. Consider-

  • Reed Hastings — angry at being charged yet again late fees for his video rental from Blockbuster. (‘why not make it easier and simpler?’)
  • Marian Donavan, hands red raw from washing out nappies (‘why can’t we make these disposable?’)
  • Owen Maclaren seeing his daughter fumbling to try and assemble her pushchair whilst holding babies, handbag, assorted toys and other child paraphernalia (‘why can’t I make something foldable like the retractable undercarriage I designed for the Spitfire?’)

These are the points who give birth to Netflix disposable nappies and foldable baby buggies and there are thousands of other examples like them.

Tapping into user innovation offers some key advantages:

  • Diversity and variety — no organization can afford to look at every possible product or service concept. But users not only explore, they target precisely the pain points, the frustrations. Find the ones that others also worry about — and you may have uncovered a new market, not just a product idea.
  • Patient experimentation — as we saw in the examples and in countless others, users have the incentive to innovate and are not afraid to try things out. And they follow the motto ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’; famously James Dyson went through 5,000 odd prototypes before solving his problem with vacuum cleaning. Thomas Edison looked at 10,000 different materials before he found the right one for the filaments in his light bulb.

This isn’t just a story of products and services — the same pattern works for processes as well. Who better to identify improvements and tweaks to make something work better than someone who is close to it, works with it every day? Not for nothing is one of the major planks in the road to world-class productivity which the ‘Toyota Way’ has laid down a thing called Genchi Genbutsu. It basically means ‘go to the real place’ where the knowledge can be found, go to the source. Get close to where something is actually being done and observe. Who better to do this than the operators themselves? User innovation once again.

So there’s plenty of reasons for looking at user innovation — but some key questions remain around how to find and mobilise it.