Prolific innovators often find a solution before they encounter the problem. The iconoclastic inventor, sitting alone at a workbench furiously solving problems is a fun image, but falls short as a template for successful innovation. A far more solid path to invention is innovation-based situational awareness — keeping an eye open for problems that should be solved and for good ideas that can solve problems. Innovation is a profoundly non-linear adventure — so much so that we need not even identify the problem we are trying to solve before we gather the components we will need to solve it.
Advertisers have exploited an analogous model since the inception of advertising. Car companies, for example, know that while few people are currently shopping for a car, many people will buy a car in the next several years. Similarly, a coffee company may advertise on late night television, knowing that while few viewers are going to interrupt a night of insomnia to run out to the supermarket and buy caffeinated drinks, many of those viewers will shop for coffee in the near future. Advertisers are in the business of planting a solution in our heads before we are even aware of the problem. By the time we run out of coffee or go shopping for a car, our heads are awash with brand awareness and product information.
Invention is best done the same way: When you encounter something that strikes you as cool, amazing, interesting, valuable for a reason you cannot identify, or otherwise bearing a “wow” factor, take the time to commit that information to memory. Inventors need tools to solve problems. Waiting until the problem is identified before finding tools is akin to a carpenter showing up at a job site without tools. Sure, the carpenter can go out and purchase tools, one at a time, as needed, but if a carpenter is good at her job, she has already gathered a collection of tools that work for most jobs. So it is with innovation.
Inventions are built by combining a variety of ideas, often from different subject areas, to create a new thing that improves life for people. Generally, innovators know the areas that they are most interested in — and therefore most likely to invent in. Prolific innovators never miss an opportunity to stock their imaginations with great ideas, whether or not they know why they find those ideas attractive. Each of those ideas becomes a tool they can use to solve problems.