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Build a Better Mousetrap… But It Better be Better!


As creative problem solvers, we like to “think outside the box,” and we should strive for that. But what happens if your strange idea isn’t kept in check by cooler heads? There is a real danger — especially if you work alone — to falling so in love with your idea, that you lose sight of what it really means to be better.

Case in point. The self-parking car. Well, not the modern variant, which seems to work pretty well. But did you know that the self-parking car was invented in the 1930s and used an extra fifth wheel? Hard to imagine? See the video below. History tells us that the idea didn’t catch on.

Car Crazy

Cars seem to have a long track record for off-the-wall ideas. Cadillac sold Louie Mattar a brand new 1947 vehicle. By 1952, he had souped it up so that it drove non-stop for 6,320 miles — the distance from San Diego to New York and back. The car had to be refueled from a moving gas truck three times, which is good for airplanes but maybe a bit much for a car. It was only three times because it was towing a trailer that contained, among other things, 230 gallons of gas along with oil and water. But that isn’t the real oddball idea. The car had a stove, a fridge, a washing machine and a toilet. Yup, no need to stop for bathroom breaks if you have a toilet and a 50-gallon water tank onboard. The car could be maintained while moving including changing or inflating a tire.

Of course, there was Ford’s nuclear car which wouldn’t need extra fuel.

Sometimes…

It seems like a lot of times these “great ideas” aren’t really bad concepts, but it’s just that the execution falls short, like for the self-parking car. Another example would be the car-mounted record player. If you think record players don’t work well in hot bumpy cars, then you are correctly thinking in the box.

But someone at Chrysler in 1956 thought the “Hiway Hi-FI” was just the thing. The record player ejected from the dashboard and played custom records that stored an hour of music on a platter the size of a standard 45 record. The AutoVictrola was a later attempt that took a stack of standard 45 records. Norelco/Philips had a similar system that could almost pass for a CD player if a CD player took a 45 record.

Lesson Learned

If you ever took a class in fiction writing, there is a saying you might have heard: “Be cruel to your characters.” In other words, no one wants to read a novel about a woman with a perfect life who gets everything she wants and is very happy. You want to read about a guy who gets taken hostage or a princess dealing with an evil stepmother, or… you get the idea.

For our ideas, we should be cruel to them, too. Seek outside advice and make sure you put all the cards on the table. If you ask your friend, “Would you like a cell phone that lasts a week before you have to charge it?” You’ll get an affirmative answer. Just make sure you know they have to carry a rickshaw-like device festooned with solar panels everywhere they go.

You might argue: “But my idea is so visionary that people can’t see how truly wonderful it is until they experience it.” Maybe. Many people thought no one needed a computer in their home. But Honeywell thought they could sell their 316 computer for people to use in their kitchens. We still don’t really have “recipe computers,” and what did drive computers into people’s homes were things that Honeywell didn’t think of at that time. So sometimes you need not only the right idea, but at the right time, and for the right purpose. Ask yourself critically about all three of these factors.

After all, we finally got virtual meetings and robots, but not in 1927. We are still waiting for our flying car to arrive.

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