When an Astronaut Needs a Pen

Ever get stuck on a problem, only to realize you’re solving for the wrong thing? That’s exactly what happened when the rocket scientists at NASA were trying to make astronauts’ pens to work in the zero-gravity environment of space.
According to Scientific American, “During the height of the space race in the 1960s, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in zero gravity. They therefore spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars developing a ballpoint pen that could put ink to paper without needing gravitational force to pull on the fluid.”
The Soviets, on the other hand, delivered us a nuclear warhead of embarrassment…they simply gave their astronauts pencils.
NASA was focused on the wrong problem – making a pen work in space. The real issue at hand wasn’t a pen at all; it was providing astronauts a tool for writing. When reframing the challenge, the soviets solved a multi-million dollar problem for the cost of a #2 pencil.
Innovation scholars refer to this as “jobs-to-be-done” theory. The classic example: when hanging a picture above your living room couch, the thing you need isn’t a 1/4″ drill bit but rather a 1/4″ hole. Too often, we get caught up in the nuances and complexities of a specific solution rather than deeply connecting to the job-to-be-done. Once we zero in on the right problem, we can more easily apply inventive thinking to achieve the desired outcome.
If the brainiac rocket scientists at NASA can fall into this trap, so can we. As we approach our own challenges – big and small – let’s direct our attention to the job-to-be-done and proceed unencumbered with conventional wisdom. Instead of blowing 38 months on a pen that defies gravity, let’s push our creative boundaries to discover simple, efficient, and inventive solutions instead.
Now that’s something to write home about. With your #2 pencil, of course.

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