We throw around the term “problem-solving” as if we all knew exactly what it was, even though there is no universal understanding of its nuances. The way our brains problem-solve alone and in collaboration is slightly different for everyone.
The art of problem-solving, especially when it relates to innovation, requires diverse perspectives and approaches. When we innovate solutions to difficult problems at PCDworks, we pay special attention to fundamental research and functional decomposition. It’s not as complicated as it sounds:
Building a Robust Research Foundation
Our first step is to delve deep into comprehensive research, analyzing patents (both active and expired), scientific literature, white papers, studies and especially what the client has already tried. This isn’t just an exercise to avoid patent overlap, but a way to learn from the past. Even if a patent has expired or been abandoned, that information can clue us in on why other potential solutions were unsuccessful. Knowing what the customer has tried, and how they failed is most important.
Looking at old patents sparks new ideas.
This historical insight is a fertile ground where new, groundbreaking ideas take root, often setting the stage for connections with international experts in their respective fields. We’re always standing on the shoulders of giants, and these giants are often more than happy to help us expand upon their work.
How Do You Actually “Think Outside the Box?”
We think of it as an extreme ‘zoom out,’ then ‘zoom in’ process. Our brains are excellent at pattern-seeking and big-picture vision. It’s an evolutionary survival strategy that serves us well in many ways. It helps us look for patterns in problems, too. Think of it as zooming out to grasp the issue in its entirety, enabling us to unravel the fundamental physics underlying a problem. From this bird’s eye view, we can understand the basics of the process, structure, and history of the problem.
Let’s say, for example, we’re working on a pump system. Our big-picture approach includes understanding all types of existing types of pumps regardless of where they are used, or even evolved to be used, their applications, benefits, and limitations. We immerse ourselves in the depth and breadth of the problem, gaining a nuanced understanding that transcends superficial knowledge.
While an expansive view is crucial, true innovation arises when we pair it with a "zoomed-in" perspective, a process we refer to as functional decomposition. It’s essentially distilling a problem to its essence.
Functional Decomposition—a fancy term for “reducing the problem to what it’s doing”
We strip down the problem to its fundamental elements. With the pump example, we reduce the whole system to its core function and think of it in terms of “moving fluids from one place to another.”
Suddenly, we have a much broader variety of processes that apply to our pump problem. We no longer only think of hydraulic pumps in aircraft or centrifugal pumps used in oil drilling. We consider the human heart moving blood around the body. We debate the difference between humans and other mammals.
How does a human heart pump differently from a giraffe heart that requires blood to travel a much farther distance to the brain? Giraffe hearts don’t have valves like human hearts. Why not? What are the benefits and drawbacks of that, and how might it inform our specific pump problem?
In this way, reducing the problem to what it’s doing doesn’t narrow our focus but expands it, paving the way for pioneering innovation by blending insights from different industries and fields, the plant world, and the animal kingdom. This is where true problem-solving happens.
Curious how this innovation process applies to your idea? Let’s talk!
The Special Sauce of Innovation: 3 Key Traits
By Mike Rainone ~ In theory, anyone can innovate. In practice, few do. What sets the innovators apart? At PCDworks, we’re in the business of innovation, which means we’ve had to learn how to identify innovative minds. Usually, when hiring, people look at resumes and past experience. Innovation is hard to quantify, though. It is not simply an action, but a mindset—a way of thinking and looking at the world. In my experience as co-founder, instead of relying on resumes, you need to look deeper, at core character traits. If you want to innovate, you need curious generalists who aren’t fatheads. That’s the special sauce.