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Why Not?

December 1, 2003

“Why not?”

I’m not quoting the obnoxious child who tormented you for years. It’s the title of a new book, subtitled “How to use everyday ingenuity to solve problems big and small.”

However, the obnoxious child is in there. The book’s dedication says, “To Helen and Jennifer” — evidently the authors’ wives — “who politely suggested that we put our modest proposals into a book — and then lock that book away in a drawer.”

It’s easy to imagine the two “boys” in cocktail-hour conversations full of “what ifs” and “why nots.” The other guests drift away …

But the book is fun.

The authors give examples of deceptively simple innovations in business, the kind that make you smack your head and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Then, they derive four principles from these experiences that can help one find similarly ingenious solutions.

The authors are quick to point out that these are not the only tools in the innovation toolbox; but they work. The principles derive from four questions …

What would Croesus do? Croesus was an extremely wealthy king. He represents the unconstrained consumer, who will solve a problem without concern for cost.

Why don’t you feel my pain? Consumers, acting in self-interest, can make choices that are not good for society. The authors introduce the idea with the example of The Club (an anti-theft device for cars) versus Lojack (a silent transmitter that lets police track stolen cars).

The Club merely moves the thief, and the pain, to the next car. Lojack actually inhibits theft. Use of Lojack could be encouraged for good economic reasons.

The third question is, Where else would it work? “Translations” are based on ideas that work. Adapt the airliner black boxes for cars. Extend the deadline for charitable contributions to April 15, as with IRA contributions. Offer season passes for movie theaters. Require campaign contributions to be anonymous, like votes.

The last question is, Would flipping it work? The authors call this the symmetry tool. There are surprising reversals. Consider the English auction, which starts low, goes up, and the last person with a hand up wins. The Dutch auction is reversed. The auctioneer starts high and comes down. The first person to raise a hand wins.

A video store could flip its rewind policy. You don’t rewind when you’re done. Since so many people fail to rewind, the rule becomes: rewind before you watch. Everyone rewinds just once, but nobody can skip rewinding. Until DVDs.

What could we flip in the library? We could pay you for returning books early. Nah. We could deliver books to your home instead of having you pick them up. This would be interesting. Probably costly. And we would miss your visit.

Our policy of not renewing books when there’s a waiting list has the unintended consequence of not letting us permit online renewals, since the software doesn’t recognize this constraint. Yet, I think online renewal might be popular. What would Croesus do?

I enjoyed the advice about how to find problems, as if we needed help. They suggest “paying attention to what bugs you and other people.”

Ha! You mean like loud, irritating music in cafes and restaurants? We could provide headphone jacks.

Or all those rude, unshielded “security” lights that now glare everywhere in the valley? We could shield them. Barking dogs? Buckshot … and not for the dogs.

Who cares what Croesus would do; why don’t you feel my pain?

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