The year was 1993, and my brother Andrew and I had the thickest bowl cuts you could imagine. Andrew was in kindergarten and had entered an invention in a local contest.
Students were told to think of an everyday problem and develop an innovative solution. Andrew’s problem arose from our cat Max.
Max had one dish for both his food and water. The pill-shaped dish had two basins with a thin barrier separating them.
The problem—Max was a messy eater.
Every time Max ate, he inevitably pushed some of his kitty food into the water. It was only moments before these tiny dry kibbles swelled up into mushy floaties. Max refused to eat the soggy leftovers resulting in one of us having to fish out disintegrated cat food.
Andrew’s solution—the Cat Food Dish Divider!
He cut a one-inch tall rectangle out of a plastic Cool Whip lid and hot glued it between the two bowls. Every time Max shoved his nose into the food, the bits would rebound back into the correct bowl. Pure genius.
The judges liked the idea as well. Andrew tied for first place with a girl who created a mailbox with a spring-loaded carrier signal flag (a bit more sophisticated than hot glue and plastic, if you ask me). They were featured on a local news segment called “Kids Korner.” Andrew was famous for a day.
The dish divider may seem like a simple idea. But you have to remember this was before Amazon. You couldn’t just go online and find any item you can dream of and have it shipped to your house in two days. If you encountered a problem, you had to either live with it or find a solution.
Innovation is the ability to think outside the box. Kids naturally think outside the box because they don’t know the box exists. We have a lot we can learn from kids regarding innovation.
It can be irritating when a child asks your “why?” a million times in a row. What they are actually doing is practicing curiosity. We used to be curious too. We stopped asking the question somewhere along the line because we assumed that we already knew the answer.
You might benefit from following the same two-step process as these elementary school kids.
Identify a problem.
What is a problem you face consistently? It could be a personal issue (i.e., wet cat food). Or it could be something you deal with at work, school, church, etc.
When we live with a problem long enough, we begin to accept it as the norm. It’s just the way things are. Here are some questions to help bring an issue to mind:
What is something that frustrates you?
What is a task that should be easy but ends up being hard?
What eats up way too much time?
What is something that you are always complaining about?
What do you put a lot of energy into for little return?
After you’ve identified your problem, it’s time to…
Invent a solution.
Your solution doesn’t have to be fancy. It could literally be a Cool Whip lid and hot glue. It just needs to work. Sometimes we get so concerned with coming up with something brilliant that we miss out on the obvious answer that was there all along.
When thinking about a solution, it’s crucial to have an experimentation mindset. Don’t assume that the first idea you put on a whiteboard will work. If you do, you’ll likely take a bad idea way too far before finally ditching it.
Instead, think of your initial idea as a prototype. Figure out a way to test it. Then go back to the lab and measure the results. Every failure isn’t actually a failure as long as you learn from it.
Eventually, you may come up with something great. You might invent the next Cat Food Dish Divider.
Where do you need innovation? What helps you think outside the box? Let me know in the comments below!
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