The only four problems that innovators can solve

Innovation is a high-speed play field. To survive and strive in it you need find the right short-cuts. Here is a simple way to deal with “understanding the market problem”.

Running a regular business is not a simple thing, but it’s at least well documented and can be taught in various ways. It’s comparable to classical mechanics. Innovation on the other hand is the quantum physics of classical business. When its counter-intuitiveness has been laid out for you, you immediately feel like you get it. Then you need to get involved in it and you realize that you just don’t get it.

It’s OK, we’ve all been there.

In a totally unrelated way, I was extremely intrigued years ago when discovering that most branches of Hinduism or Buddhism were using very specific tools to teach concepts or notions, that essentially cannot be explained. There are called upāya kauśalya (उपाय कौशल्य) in Sanskrit or fāngbiàn (方便) in Chinese. It translates to something like a smart, or clever expedient.

Clever expedients are exactly what we need in innovation.

We neither have the time nor the luxury to delve for too long on all the subtleties that building new ventures implies. At the end of day, only results matter and your capability at surviving the initial contact with the market, then maybe – just maybe – grow from there. And it’s an uncomfortable game:

This preamble to warn you somehow. When you’ve been working for a long time in the innovation battlefield, you tend to use the best expedient possible to achieve results. It may not look pretty, but it gets the job done no question will be asked.

For me, a fair acid test to that mindset is that every tool you’re using should be understandable right away. It should “speak” to you in a clear way. Then, of course, you can disagree. But because it’s simple enough it shouldn’t be difficult to challenge it.

These tools should also be scalable and have depth. I mean it in the sense that they should help you deal with fundamental mechanisms at play in innovation. The quantum forces I was speaking about. The ones that are difficult to grasp and would take too much time for you to really understand if you were trying to confront them face to face. But I’ll get back to that in another article, or in a book someday when I’ll be too old or jaded to do anything else… For now, let’s jump to the subject at hand…

When you declare you want to design and build an innovation, smart people will tell you that the foremost issue to address is identifying and understanding the problem you want to crack.

Thinking like that is a key “clever expedient”.

Among the many things that will call your attention, actually only a few really matter to kick off an innovation project. Understanding what is the underlying need in the market (the problem) will push you out of the comfort zone of building technology, to the uncomfortable zone of creating added value and selling it.

And not only thinking in term of market need is important. We’re speaking of A PROBLEM. It’s not something vaguely irritating, or a nice thing that you could do in passing. No, it’s about solving a powerful issue for consumers or companies, that will be ready to pay for it. Obviously, this is very reductive because not everything is a problem. That’s exactly the point.

Force yourself and your team to see your would-be innovation as a problem-solver. This will push you in a specific mindset that will focus neatly your work, and force you to think in term of added value. And the logic goes like this:

  • If there’s a problem on the market, then the current players in the ecosystem are (yet) incapable of doing something that is needed.
  • Then there is a gap to fill that will change the market in a positive way (it’s called innovation – yeah!).

  • If you manage to fill the gap with your solution, then you bring an added value to the market.

  • This ADDED value will command a superior price (except if you’re changing the market strictly on cost-disruption).


Solving a problem forces you to think in term of added value.

OK but still, what if the “problem” we see is not really a problem? What if the innovation we want to create is not solving anything clear? Well then it means that A) maybe the problem has not fully bloomed yet. It essentially means that if you’re right in seeing your innovation in this light, the problem will eventually appear and it’s a time-to-market game of getting your solution ready for when the foreseen customers will be. Or, of course, that B) what you’re doing sucks really bad (in term of innovation at least, you may have a fine car or hot-dog stand for what it’s worth).

Anyhow, thinking in term of market’s problem can be tricky though, and dealing with market’s maturity or problem visibility can be confusing. When we are working on this early step with different kinds of projects, we are usually using this expedient: consider that there are only four problems that innovators can solve: gas leaks, titanics, magic potions, and zinc mines. In a few pictures here’s what we refer to:

Firstly the low-intensity, nearly invisible (yet) “GAS LEAK” -type problems:

GAS LEAK - They Are Only Four Problems That Innovators Can Solve - Merkapt

Then we have the more visible “TITANIC” -type of problems:

TITANIC - They Are Only Four Problems That Innovators Can Solve - Merkapt

Later on, these problems may evolve in full-blown “MAGIC POTION” -type problems, that everyone wants to solve, but none can handle:

MAGIC POTION - They Are Only Four Problems That Innovators Can Solve - Merkapt

And lastly, we fall in the “ZINC MINE” zone, where things can be done, but no one is really concerned:

ZINC MINE - They Are Only Four Problems That Innovators Can Solve - Merkapt

If these categories already speak to you, wonderful. If not, don’t fret, we’ll look at each of these four problem types individually in next articles. And I’ll be particularly interested in trying to demonstrate that you can really work on any type of problem.

Each of these problems calls to a specific team culture.

Author: Philippe

After obtaining a PhD in biotechnologies, and working in a medical diagnostic startup, Philippe Méda has managed teams and companies in the medical and pharmaceutical industries for over fifteen years. Following an MBA in 2007 Philippe founded Merkapt, a consulting agency in charge of co-piloting innovation for startups and large multinationals, in Europe, and Asia. Since then he has been training 200 to 300 startups a year, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation, and was directly involved in more than 150 startups building their market fit and scaling up their business. Philippe also teaches innovation and business model design in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai and is now living in Amsterdam.