Innovation is not about solving just any problem but about knowing which problems to solve. We discovery the right problem by asking the right questions. There are a number of inflection points in history in which a brilliant person took a popularly held assumption – even one that is totally counter-intuitive – and changed it by asking a different question. Two of the most famous examples.
Newton and the Laws of Motion
It is tempting to think of the fundamental problems of physics to be about answering the question “what causes objects to move?” Isaac Newton’s Principia, published in 1687, laid out the laws of motion that describe all of our everyday physical interactions. The laws of motion, however, do not answer the question of why things move. Newton actually discovered that the question that should have been asked is “what causes objects to stop when they are already in motion?” This question introduced the concepts of inertia, friction, and equal-and-opposite reactions, and our understanding of the world would not be the same without them.
Einstein and Special Relativity
Einstein will forever be known for the observation that the speed of light is constant. Douglas Adams noted that light travels so fast that it took “thousands of years to realize that it travels at all.” Any attempt to measure the speed of light was a pretty radical concept. It was known before Einstein’s breakthrough that light had wave properties. Like all waves, it was assumed that it traveled through a medium, and it would be possible to observe light traveling at a different speed through a moving medium. However, no experiment ever measured a different speed of light. Instead of the question “what medium does light move through,” Einstein asked the question “if the speed of light is constant and it travels through space, what does that mean for space and time?” This question completely altered the way we see the universe.
Not all innovations need to be this earth-shaking, but these examples demonstrate that great breakthroughs come when innovators ask a novel, bold question.