A Problem-Solver’s Guide to Copycatting

Instead, look for the folks who have already solved them.

A Problem-Solver’s Guide to Copycatting
FISH TALE The Antarctic icefish digests oils in extreme cold. That process offers lessons and inspiration for cold-water stain-fighting detergents. | Wikimedia Commons

Your business has a big problem. You’ve thought about it, but you can’t seem to crack it. So you consult your colleagues — to no avail. Then you turn to the big guns — your industry’s top experts. They’ve got nothing. (Well, to be precise, they’ve got 40 PowerPoint slides worth of nothing, and you’ve got $225,000 less of something.) Now what?


You might take some inspiration from Pete Foley, associate director of the cognitive science group at Procter & Gamble, who was looking for an inspired solution to challenges faced by P&G’s feminine-care business unit. Its R&D staff had pursued several approaches, but none of them offered the breakthrough that Foley craved. So he did the next logical thing: He took his team to the San Diego Zoo.

The zoo is developing a specialty in biomimicry, a discipline that tries to solve problems by imitating the ingenious and sustainable answers provided by nature. In a working session with the company, the zoo’s biomimicry experts made an unexpected connection between P&G’s problem and the physiology of a gecko. Other ideas came quickly, inspired by flower petals, armadillos, squirrels, and anteaters. (Full disclosure: Chip led a workshop with the biomimicry team on another issue.) By the end of the day, the working group had generated eight fresh approaches to the challenge. It was as if Ideo had opened an office on Noah’s Ark.

Most of us don’t solve problems this way. We start by tapping the local knowledge, and if it’s insufficient, we go looking for specialists. But what if we’re following the wrong protocol? We should stop looking for experts and start looking for analogues. It’s a big world: Chances are someone has solved your problem already. And she might be an anteater.

Let’s say you’re looking to create a detergent that works superbly in cold temperatures. This would seem to be a Chemical Engineering Problem. But, as the zoo’s scientists tell us, it’s also an Antarctic Icefish Problem. When the icefish eats other fish, it has to digest the oils of its prey, and this process is remarkably similar to what happens in the wash with the oily taco stains on your T-shirt. Furthermore, the icefish typically dines in water as cold as — 2 degrees Celsius. (Try that, All-Temperature Cheer!) So, thanks to this cold fish, you have a working model for an ultra-low-temperature detergent — and it’s a solution that would have never occurred to an expert. The model also suggests that the world’s auto-safety leaders ought to be studying cockroaches, which routinely walk away from newspaper swats that must be the equivalent of dropping the city of Cleveland on your Corolla.

Exotic animals are clearly not the only place to look for answers. What if another industry has solved your problem? In 1989, the pilots of the Exxon Valdez ran it into Bligh Reef, spilling enough oil to cover 11,000 square miles of ocean. To finish this cleanup job, you’d have to clear an area the size of Walt Disney World Resort every week for about five years. One major obstacle was that the oil and water tended to freeze together, making the oil harder to skim off. This problem defied engineers for years until a man named John Davis, who had no experience in the oil industry, solved it. In 2007, he proposed using a construction tool that vibrates cement to keep it in liquid form as it pours. Presto!

Why is it counterintuitive to look outside our own turf for answers? “If you’ve spent five or six years getting a PhD, or 5 to 10 years in the field itself, you’re a domain expert,” says Karim Lakhani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies innovation. “You can’t imagine that someone else may have a different perspective. But problems that are difficult in one domain may be trivial to solve from the perspective of a different domain.”

The trick, of course, is locating that elusive person who’d find your problem trivial. If this hunt were easy, we’d all be problem free. We could resolve life’s great mysteries with epiphanies sparked by toucans and frozen-yogurt machines.


But while the hunt may not be easy, it’s not random either. It’s about pattern matching. Ask yourself who might have solved a problem similarto yours. For instance, health-care advocates trying to reduce medical errors have learned from total-quality-management experts in the manufacturing world who obsess about ways to reduce product-defect rates. Olympic swimwear designers, intent on reducing the water’s drag on swimmers, have enlisted help from NASA engineers who make aircraft more aerodynamic.

The biggest barrier to the idea hunt, in fact, may be you. It may never occur to you to start searching because we all commonly keep our thinking penned up within our company or industry. How can you overcome this conformist instinct? We’re not entirely sure, but a good first step might be a workshop with the Hells Angels.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Their next book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, will be released in February 2010.