Tuesday 22 September 2020

Innovation Stories 2 - The Locked Shop

This is the second of two true stories I’m sharing in which children exhibit phenomenal lateral thinking, and in doing so demonstrate some fundamental principles of innovation. In the first post a story of a class spelling test showed how "Innovation Loves Constraints". In this post we move to a village in Ghana and a tale from my brother where a kid shows, not necessarily legally, that "Innovation Loves Opportunity".

I like this following story. Whilst the protagonist is very clever and demonstrates a simple solution to take advantage of an opportunity he identifies, his solution was illegal and he got caught so I can recount the story happily with no sense of envy at the genius of his creativity. The names are made up, I'd like to say this is to protect anonymity but actually it's because I can't remember them.

The Shop

My brother lived as a volunteer in a village in Ghana for a couple of years in his youth. Many of the shops in his village were simple wooden sheds with a single front door and no windows. One such shop in the village sold, amongst other things, a variety of candy and sweets. The owner, let's call him Abraham, would unlock the padlocked door to the shop each morning, put out the displays that stood outside the shop, and man the shop all day. On the rare occasions that Abraham did take a break someone else watched the shop for him, such that the shop was under constant supervision. At the end of the day Abraham would put all the boxes and stands back inside, checking each as he did so. He'd then lock the door by snapping the padlock on it, a padlock to which Abraham kept the only key.

Each day that this happened a boy, let's call him Daniel, would stare longingly at the items in the shop and wish that he could afford some of the treats inside. Sadly sweets were expensive and Daniel was poor, so he was limited to looking forlornly at them each day with little hope of ever getting any.

One morning, however, Abraham arrived at the shop, unlocked the padlock and opened the door to find that a load of his stock was missing. The door was in-tact and unmolested. There was no sign of any break in elsewhere, the walls, door and floor were all in perfect condition. The sweets had simply disappeared. The alert went out around the village, and before long a stack of goodies was discovered in Daniel's possession. He'd cleaned out the shop, but how?

At this point I challenge you to see if you can work it out yourself before you read on.

The Opportunity

What Daniel had done was to spot an opportunity. While Abraham was watching his stock, and his shop, all day, there was one thing he wasn't watching. The padlock.

Daniel knew exactly what type of padlock it was and managed to lay his hands on an identical one, to which he had the key. After Abraham had unlocked the shop and placed the padlock to one side, Daniel simple crept in and replaced the open padlock with his own. Abraham locked the shop that night with absolutely no idea that the only person with access to the shop was now not himself, but a small boy with a key, and a very devious streak.

It was a simple task for Daniel to sneak along that night, unlock his own padlock and clean out the shop. The icing on the cake was locking the shop up again with Abraham's original padlock so that there was no sign from the outside that anything was amiss and allowing Abraham to open up his shop as usual the next day.

Creativity doesn't always create

Did you work it out? Well done if you did. It sounds paradoxical to say that creativity isn't always about creating, but as this story demonstrates, sometimes it is as much about setting an opportunity and applying an existing idea in a novel way. Daniel wasn't thinking about how to get into the locked shop, his idea was to use the fact that the shop was inevitably going to be locked to his advantage. The best innovations are often the most annoying, mainly because they are very simple and you didn't think of them. The innovator simply saw an opportunity and applied existing technology to come up with a 'good enough' solution.

As a relevant aside, my father in law revels in telling me that he knows the person who invented the retractable crowd barrier - essentially attaching a retractable car seatbelt on top of a metal pole - and made millions. I have no idea if this is true, but as someone who is more of a constraints driven innovator than an opportunistic one, it's a galling tale to hear repeatedly from the man whose daughter you are married to.

Spotting multi-million pound product opportunities like this will sadly continue to elude most of us. What the two tales I've shared in these posts ably demonstrate, is that it doesn't take great wisdom, a wealth of experience or a creative gene to identify creative opportunities that are beautiful in their simplicity. It therefore follows that maintaining a culture where as many people as possible feel able to contribute to innovative activities, at least maximises the chances of spotting opportunities when they do arise.

image: www.africastories.org

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