GitHub’s Frustration-Based Approach To Innovation

Startups and corporations alike devote endless time, vast resources, and much brainpower to try to foster innovation. But as Scott Chacon, CIO of GitHub, explains, it should be simple–find your frustration and figure out how best to fix it.

What do the following things have in common: e-readers, keyless entry, mobile payments? Answer: They are technological innovations that arose (at least in part) as a result of common frustrations–heavy backpacks, bulky key rings, forgotten wallets.


“I forget these things at home all the time, and it’s annoying,” GitHub CIO Scott Chacon, right, said at the most recent Compute Midwest Conference in Kansas City, in a speech called “The Future Of Work: Find Your Frustration And Fix It.” He points to VC heavyweight Marc Andreesson’s assertion that software companies are “poised to take over large parts of the economy” in response to these common (if minor enough) problems–and therein lies the key to stimulating innovation within your own company.

GitHub, one of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies of 2013, should know. The collaborative platform, which acts like a coder’s wiki, allows programmers to co-develop and share code, thus reducing the time spent on basic building blocks and helping innovative solutions come to market faster.

So how does this play out for startups? Take the smartphone. There are myriad complex technological innovations that go into making it. But the idea–boiled down to its most simplistic concept, which Chacon calls “first principles”–is that a smartphone addresses a number of annoyances everyone shares.

“As a minor frustration, I’ve left my wallet on my desk. But I always have my phone on me. It’s my wristwatch, map, text messaging, everything I need on a minute-to-minute basis. I’ll leave my wallet on my desk when I go to the bathroom, but what am I going to do in the bathroom without my phone?” Chacon says of its indispensability. “I’ll always have that on me.”

Bottom Line: “Go back to the root of whatever problems are frustrating you and say, ‘What should this be like?’ And then, ‘Is it possible?’ Because now, the answer is probably yes–it’s probably pretty easy to solve this problem in some way. The future is re-imagining all these things we’ve taken for granted for a long time and saying, what would the best possible thing be?”

Watch Chacon’s presentation in its entirety here.


[Facepalm Image: chert28 via Shutterstock, Chacon Headshot: Flickr user Hardwarehank]

About the author

Erin Schulte is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and Entrepreneur, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @erin719nyc.