Every Problem is an Opportunity

William Sahlman: If you view all problems as opportunities, and then you think about ways to re-engineer a process, then I think you find opportunity is absolutely everywhere.

Opportunities come in many different forms.  So, for example, I could get someone to answer a series of questions, like “What’s the worse customer experience you have?”  And could you go through systematically and talk about what was wrong with that customer interaction and ways in which we might improve it?  So if you start with a problem, indeed, if you view all problems as opportunities, and then you think about ways to re-engineer a process, then I think you find opportunity is absolutely everywhere.


The story I like to tell is of a friend who happened to be in the toy business for a period of time and had developed something called a spin pop, which was a battery driven lollypop.  Now, this is a remarkably American product, for Americans so lazy that they need a battery and electric motor to turn the lollypop in their mouth.  

But at any rate, he sold the company and then grew relatively restless and went off to Wal-Mart to look for an opportunity.  And what he discovered was there was a huge gap between manual toothbrushes and electric toothbrushes.  One sold for 4 bucks, the other sold for 80 bucks.  And he said, “Well, what if I could take in what I learned in making a battery-operated lollypop and turn that into a battery-operated toothbrush.”  It seems slightly ironic when you think about it. 

But at any rate, what he was able to do was use his contacts with the Chinese manufacturer, to use his knowledge of how to distribute in mass markets through big retailers, to create a product originally called Dr. John Spin Brush, but eventually purchased by Proctor & Gamble and then renamed the Crest Spin Brush.  At its peak, P&G was selling 425,000 of those toothbrushes a day.  So you can look for gaps, look for places where consumers might not be buying something because it’s too expensive and too complicated. 

As Clay Christiansen would say, “The existing players are on a sustaining path.”  And then you come in with a product - that electric toothbrush people think is a toy, but which is at a price point where non-consumers will actually embrace it, and then you begin to improve that product over time, actually to the point where the product becomes directly competitive with the high end product of a typical electric toothbrush. 

So I think there are lots of things you can learn about gap identification, problem identification, things you might want to have that aren’t out there on the market.  It’s absolutely learnable and I think teach-able. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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