I'm no engineer, of course, but I like to think I know a little about innovation. It begins with a problem you just can't ignore that must be worked on until you solve it. Necessity really is invention's mom, and having that proverbial gun to your head can produce some great results — if you're lucky.
Long ago, while managing a fast-food restaurant in West St. Paul, Minn., I was closing late one night when I realized that I didn't have the key to lock the place up. Gulp. I couldn't leave the restaurant door unlocked and drive home to get the key, and I couldn't call my supervising manager or district manager without probably being fired. I seem to recall that I'd already used my get-out-of-a-jam-free card on some minor crises that had happened earlier.
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So I just stared at the door for 15 to 20 minutes and grew increasingly panicked because I started to ask myself silly, irrational questions, such as, "Is there any way to lock this door from the outside without a key?"
I basically was doomed, so I kept looking at the door. It had a serious, inch-thick deadbolt that flipped up into a cutout in the steel doorframe. I was a little encouraged by the fact that it had a manual latch on the inside that could be turned by hand, but the door had to be completely closed, and the latch could only be flipped by someone on the inside, and there was no other exit that would leave the restaurant secure.
There was a second door, but it had the same setup as the first, and the back door had no external lock at all. I thought about the drive-thru window, but its lock was even more complex, so I couldn't squeeze out that way. I even checked the chimney, but a gerbil couldn't have gone through that vent.
As a result, I looked at the door yet again. If only there was a way to get that manual latch to turn over with the door closed — and me on the outside. I did notice that, even when locked, the door had just a tiny bit of give, maybe about 1/16 inch, but how could that possibly help me?
I thought once more, if only the inside latch could be positioned just before its inner workings turned over, then maybe the door could be closed, and all it would need is a little more horizontal pull over the top to get the deadbolt to flip up. Some tape could help me position the latch, but it wouldn't give me the extra pull needed to turn it. How could I generate that pull with the door closed?
Well, our restaurant's managers and other staffers sometimes helped customers and coworkers who had locked their keys in their cars by using a coat hanger to work between the window glass and weather stripping on the door frame, and eventually hook onto and pull the little knob at the top of their car doors. (This was before the days of in-door latches and anti-theft bars in the doors.) Still, there was no room in my door for a coat hanger.
However, there was just enough give for a bootlace. So I turned the latch to the point at which the deadbolt was just about to flip up, wrapped the lace around the latch a few times, closed the door almost completely and with me on the outside, tugged slowly and gingerly on the lace a few times, and this turned the latch and locked the door! Ha ha!
I was fully prepared to leave the lace in the door for whoever opened the next day because there was no way it could have been used to unlock the door. However, I was even able to jiggle the locked door a little more and free the lace as well. Thus, I left no trace of the difficulty into which I'd plunged myself or the organic solution that freed me.
Sure, this was a small drama and victory. Family and friends didn't share my elation, and co-workers were singularly unimpressed by several later reenactments. Just like any magic trick, it's boring once you know how it's done.
Admittedly, I didn't invent the light bulb or fix a million-dollar machine. However, I've noticed over the years that even big and dramatic inventions often turn on very small tweaks, such as Mr. Edison's famous carbon filament or when P&G learned to speed up production of its Pringles potato chips by studying their aerodynamics and spraying on seasonings ("Simulations Branch Out," Sept. 2010).
As for me, I solved a problem that seemed totally unapproachable at first and dodged what would have been a nasty bullet. Apart from the fact that I've used that same dogged inquistiveness to solve other problems and explore the innards of many stories, the memory of this little innovation still cheers me up. It just proves that some problems can be solved if you stare at them long enough. Ha, ha again.