The ‘Space Pen’ approach to problem solving

This article by XOXX’x Guy Blaskey was originally published in the October edition of PBW News.

We all know about the ‘space race’ of the 1960s, where the two world Superpowers, the USA and the USSR battled it out to conquer space. The USSR arguably won by getting the 1st man in space. The USA arguably won by getting the 1st man on the moon. Who won is of no interest to this article, but the alleged approach to one of the problems faced by both sides is.

Both sides faced the problem that pens didn’t work in space, due to there being no gravity to push the ink out of the pen. Allegedly NASA / The USA spend millions of dollars developing a pressurised “Space Pen” to solve this problem, whereas the USSR simply used pencils. (This is actually an urban myth, as the Space Pen was developed by Fischer, at no cost to the NASA and was used by both the USSR and the USA, as there were problems with pencils, such as the graphite dust created when they were used. But lets not let the truth get in the way of a good story! Let’s continue as if the story were true).

What is interesting to us here is the different approaches to problems. The lesson that we learn from this parable is one about over-engineering the solution to a problem, which often comes from over-complicating the problem in the first place. This often stems from different ways of looking at the problem. The USA and the USSR were essentially looking at different problems. The USA were looking at the problem that pens don’t work without gravity and there is no gravity in space. The USSR didn’t have this problem, they knew that they needed to be able to write in space, looked at the available writing instruments (pens and pencils) and picked the one that worked in the conditions that they were working with. As Meerkats say, ‘Simples!’.

We are all guilty of doing the same as the Americans and over-complicating problems. Most often, the reason that we do this is because we lose sight of the customer needs. One of the things that I most often tell people when I am working as a consultant, and one of the things I tell myself and my team at Pooch & Mutt, most often is that people don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems. Our job as manufacturers, marketers and sales people is to give them the most efficient and effective solutions to the problems that they have. The key questions that you need to ask with any product are; Who is this for? What problem do they have that this solves? Why is this the best way to solve that problem? These 3 questions should be the foundation of any product development, or marketing campaign… actually they should be the foundation of any successful company.