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Why the great women and men who shaped history began with this powerful question:
Can it be made better?

If you want to encourage your children (or anyone, even yourself for that matter) to think about their successful future, what is the best question to ask? 


My parents would ask me: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” My answer was anything from a fireman, cowboy, pilot or vet. However, this once good question is now largely irrelevant. Many of the jobs considered important today will not even exist for humans in the future, so massive will the changes be as AI and automation sweeps in.


The reality is that machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics are going to disrupt careers and create new jobs in manners we struggle to imagine today. Vishal Maini the editor of Machine Learning for Humans says; “Artificial Intelligence will shape our future more powerfully than any other innovation this century. Anyone who does not understand it will soon find themselves feeling left behind, waking up in a world full of technology that feels more and more like magic.”


So, with traditional roles vanishing as quickly as crushed ice lemonade on a scorching summers day, the most important question everyone who wants to remain relevant in a changing world, is this: “Can it be made better?” Here's why.

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Nights of darkness suck! So, Thomas Edison gave us lightbulbs. Germs suck! So, Fleming gave us penicillin 

The great women and men who shaped history began with this question

Nights of darkness suck! So, Thomas Edison gave us incandescent lightbulbs. Germs suck! So, Fleming gave us penicillin. Walking, when birds fly, sucks! So, the Wright brothers gave us wings. Automobiles for only the very wealthiest sucks! So, Ford gave us the production line and the liveable wage. Inequality sucks! So, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela gave us equal rights. Cancer sucks! So, Marie Curie gave us radiology and X-ray machines.

When passion, creativity, commitment and energy is expended towards solutions that tackle what sucks most in the world, innovations emerge which no one could have imagined.


The great women and men who shaped history began with the question: “This thing sucks, can it be made better?”

That is why this powerful question is so exciting. The answers to “This thing sucks, can it be made better?” have propelled fortunes, crafted successful careers, and disrupted industries. It’s not rocket science, it’s simple stuff and yet amazingly very few people or organisations are good at discovering and focusing on the things that suck. But the remarkable ones excel at eliminating the things that suck.


Steve Jobs famously never commissioned customer research. He believed customers rarely know what they want, especially when looking to the future. Rather, Steve Jobs sought opportunities where his beautifully designed innovations could eliminate what sucked most for his customers. In doing so he create “dents in the universe.” Not being able to listen to every track of your much-loved music collection seamlessly on one device sucked! So, Jobs gave us the iPod. Lugging around a camera, Walkman and mobile phone sucked! So, Jobs did something magical by combining all three into the iPhone.


Here, hopefully is your source of inspiration. The 21st century is full of massive problems and customer pain points just waiting for innovative intrapreneurs and intrepid entrepreneurs to strike out and find new ground.


If you want to secure that next promotion, bonus or discover a killer business app giving you unicorn status; then do what the great women and history have done. Starting with the question: “This thing sucks, can it be made better?” Finding the solution will open the doors to incredible opportunities and deliver personal and societal rewards.


Point in case, consider the story of Casper, a mattress company disrupting the sleep industry. 

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Within the first month of sales Casper hit its twelve-month target of $1.8 million

How mattresses are sold sucks!

As markets go, it would be difficult to identify an industry much more mundane and uninspiring than mattresses.  It is dominated by two companies Tempur-Sealy and Serta Simmons Holdings. This duopoly boasts margins as high as 50%. The buying process uses confusing jargon like indentation force deflection or IFD. – Which to those in the know measures mattress firmness – The verbiage helps to confuse shoppers into spending an arm and a leg, for a product they literally sleep test for ten seconds. Customers must pay to have it delivered and then wrestle into their bedroom a beast of fabric and springs which behaves like the love child of a spineless walrus.


We’ve all been there. Buying a mattress sucks! Philip Krim, CEO and founder of Casper, recognised this and set off on a quest to disrupt the mattress industry.


On April 22, 2014,, the company Krim and his partners started went live. The team were hoping to sell one or two beds on day-one and perhaps a dozen in the first week. As the company’s tiny staff sat watching the computer screen they became spellbound, the impossible was happening. People were actually buying online, untested and unseen mattresses.


The mattress industry sucked so badly that the “bar was incredibly low” says Krim. But none of this is rocket science. So, the question remains, why had no one cracked it before Casper? Here’s the staggering realisation. Most companies focus on the product features, rather than innovate and eliminate what sucks. Casper gained advantage not by focusing on a new product innovation but rather by innovating around what sucked most in the mattress industry. This delivered meaningful benefits to customers and the company took-off immediately. Casper “sold an amazing total of 40 beds—its entire inventory for the first six weeks—on their first trading day.” Within the first month of sales Casper hit its twelve-month target of $1.8 million.

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No one expected Casper to be a success, let alone the runaway success it has been. Krim explained to CNBS how “not one investor believed they could succeed. They heard no "dozens and dozens and dozens of times.” Including: ‘You're going to make selling mattresses cool? Like okay, yeah, good luck with that!’"


Today Krim has sound advice for anyone wanting to tackle things that suck. "The best ideas come when no one else, or very few people, see things the way that you see it. That's what creates the opportunity."


Tackling what sucks is not easy. Things in any industry suck because it’s hard work to make them better. Things suck because no one has cracked the solution or cared enough to try. It requires doing things differently, going against the grain of conventional wisdom. Things that sucks can often be so entrenched within the norms of an industry and the way things get done, that they have become accepted as part of the furniture and are not even questioned. This may make things that suck doubly hard to identify. There may even be vested interested in your industry to keep what sucks because it creates barriers to innovation and competitors entering. It’s also so much easier to just copy what is already out there and get away with mediocracy, than to do the hard work of eliminating what sucks.


The companies who are great innovators hoover up things that suck for their customers. Casper “is focused on the benefit, not the feature,” says Mike Duda, founder and managing partner of Bullish, a tech accelerator and investor in Casper. “People want to buy into something better. They’re buying into a set of values.”


To innovate and succeed, insert formula below and prepare for lift-off:


This thing < INSERT PROBLEM > Sucks!

How Can We Make It Better? < INSERT ANSWER >

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Contact the TTC team to explore how our Full Blown Innovation framework can build a culture of innovation in your organisation

About the Author:

Dean van Leeuwen is a founding partner in TomorrowToday’s European and global office. He heads up TomorrowToday Consulting.

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