Million-dollar ideas vs. good ideas

How we sometimes find extremely complicated solutions to simple problems?

July 22, 2013

Million-dollar ideas vs. good ideas

Staff Stories

By Arquimedes Machado

A couple of weeks ago, Roger mentioned something during his Kick-Off speech in Caracas that made me think: how we sometimes find extremely complicated solutions to simple problems (“complicated” and “expensive” can be synonymous at times, especially from the client’s point of view).  

Roger’s example was that note taking could be done either on a piece of paper or a laptop. This made me remember another example, which is used constantly to illustrate the point although it’s nothing more than an urban legend. 

Legend has it that given that regular pens could not write in zero gravity (the ink wouldn’t flow from the pen to the paper), NASA spent a significant amount of money in developing a pen that could be used in space. After millions were spent, they came up with the Fisher Space Pen, which not only could write in space but in any angle and on greasy paper, so astronauts could use it anytime, anywhere.  The Fisher Space Pen seemed to be a… perfect solution? 

While this was taking place in the USA, the Russian cosmonauts, trying to win the space race themselves, faced the same problem and came up with not one, but three solutions to the same problem: graphite, wax and mechanical pencils. These were all existing solutions; instead of spending millions on a new pen, like the Americans did, they channeled their efforts into put humans in space.

What message do I want to share with you so we can reflect on it?

1.- Being innovative doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with a million-dollar idea to solve a problem: applying existing ideas/solutions that fit the need at hand is also a practical, creative and efficient way to solve a problem (we have the wheel, why reinvent it?).   

2.- We have to assume that when we’re working on a project, problems will always come up; some will be consequences of the project’s execution, others will have a more complex nature but could still prevent us from reaching our goal. Knowing the difference is part of what we do. Going back to the space race example, it’s like comparing the need to create a pen that works in the aforementioned conditions versus the calculations of how much energy is needed to land a rocket on the moon and finding the fuel to do it.

The first problem arises from my execution of the project; the latter could very well put me out of the race.  It’s easy to see the difference in this example, but when we’re neck deep into a project we may make the mistake of thinking EVERYTHING is a problem and EVERYTHING affects us the same, so EVERYTHING must be solved urgently. There always be problems, major or minor; denying this reality is denying the nature of life itself. Having the intelligence to know how much time, effort, brain cells and money we’re devoting to each solution is where our contribution lies.  

Fun fact: NASA never hired Paul Fisher, creator of the Fisher Space Pen, to develop a pen, nor did he receive government funding to develop it. Fisher invented it on his own and then asked NASA to try it. After the AG7 pen (the space pen) was introduced, both the American and the Russian space agencies adopted it.