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Innovation in Action: How the Umbrella Got a New Look

We can probably all think of times when we have creatively solved one problem only to find that we need to solve another problem (perhaps one we just created) or that the solution leads us to another, even better innovation. Indeed, each solution we implement leads us to a range of new opportunities to innovate and solve, and so it goes—on and on and on. 

To see this in action, let’s look at the umbrella. The umbrella, you say? It’s been around for 4,000 years and works pretty well. How can that continue to be innovated?  

Imagine a couple that has spent a wonderful day together strolling the boulevards, shopping and meeting friends. At the end of this perfect day, they find a sidewalk café to relax and unwind. The evening begins warm with the sun shining down. They have an umbrella with them, so they open it and sit close together in this small spot of shade. Within the hour a light rain starts and that umbrella is no longer large enough to keep them, their meal and their packages dry. Disappointed, their day ends earlier than planned. 

What was the first innovation? To answer that, we must ask, “What is the job people are trying to get done here?” The job that people are hiring the umbrella for is to protect them and their things from the elements. If handheld umbrellas are too small to do that (they are only good for one person most of the time), then let’s come up with something else. How about putting a larger umbrella on the table? It would be large enough to shade those seated beneath it and to keep the rain off them as they relax and enjoy their day. Problem solved! 

Or is it?

Let’s go back to our café. We see another couple sitting there, this time under a table umbrella protected from the sun and enjoying each other’s company. As the evening progresses, a light rain begins. Thanks to the umbrella, they stay dry and continue enjoying their evening. After some time of light rain, the woman winces as a drop of cold water hits her on the back of the neck. Not worried, the couple moves in closer to the table to get out from the edge of the umbrella. Now the rain picks up and the runoff from the umbrella gets harder, splashing their legs and feet with cold rain water. And worse, the rain is now forming puddles under them, getting their afternoon purchases wet. As with our first couple, they must surrender to the elements and leave earlier than planned.

One problem had been solved but that led us to another set of problems to solve. 

Now, how do we come up with new innovative ideas? There are a lot of innovation tools out there (see The Innovator’s Toolkit for some of the more powerful tools). Which are the right tools? As with anything in innovation, it is all about trying different things until you find that perfect solution. So let’s just pick a couple of tools here: SCAMPER and Mistake Proofing.

SCAMPER: Using Questions to Generate Ideas

First, let’s use SCAMPER to look at our “system” (the umbrella) from different angles. SCAMPER is a tool that uses questions to provoke different ways of looking at your problem. Let’s see if we can use the questions to come up with new ideas:

Substitute: Can we substitute the material the umbrella is made of?  
Maybe something that absorbs all the water? That might make it too heavy then and leave it prone to collapse. More research would be needed here.

Combine: Can we combine parts of the existing structure?
We could combine more umbrellas to make a solid ceiling. But you would still have water coming in between them.

Adapt: Can we adapt anything within the structure to work better?
We could add another “umbrella” on the edge to push water farther out from the customers. That might work, but we need the room to do this and we are still putting water at their feet at some point.

Modify/mirror/distort: How can we modify or distort the umbrella to make it perform the Job To Be Done better?
Can we make it bigger? Sure, but that still leaves edges and eventually we run out of space. If we make it a solid roof-like structure then it is a roof, no longer an umbrella! As above, we can modify it to add the new edge but if these are “temporary” fixes that won’t work either.

Put to other purposes: Are there other things out there that the existing umbrella can be used for? 
That is outside our scope right now. But if we come up with a great idea, where else can we sell it?

Eliminate: Is there anything in the current structure that we could eliminate and make it work better? 
The only things we have are the pole, the support ribs and the fabric. There’s not much to eliminate and allow it to still function.

Rearrange/reverse: Can we reverse anything to solve our problems?
Can we adapt the existing structure? Can we mirror or reverse anything? Think of when you were a child, what else was an umbrella? Was it a shield (held out in front of you)? Was it a top (put it top down on the ground and spin it)? Was it a boat or a place to carry things? What do these last few have in common? Hmm, turning the umbrella upside down (reversing it)! What if we did that?

OK, now we have an idea to flip our umbrella. That eliminates the water running to the edges and dripping down on the couple. But that could lead to other problems. Let’s use Mistake Proofing to further refine our idea.

Mistake Proofing: Refining the Idea

What are the problems, or mistakes, we see with flipping the umbrella? Well, we have water collecting in the middle and that would be a problem. Eventually it would fill with water and overflow onto our couple or collapse and get everyone very wet. What can we do there? How can we eliminate the mistake of our upside-down umbrella filling with water? How about a drain in the middle? 

But then what does that lead to? Well now we have water collecting at our couples’ feet, getting them and their packages wet. How can we eliminate this mistake? We have to create a drainage system to move that water away from the people and their packages.

You can see how innovation leads to more innovation. Each time we solve a problem, we discover another problem to solve. But you can also see how, by asking the right questions, you can come up with new and improved solutions. 

Here we get to our upside-down umbrellas! The water runs down the inside of the center pole into some rocks. This entire porch area is raised from street level to be level with the sidewalk, so it has the gutter space beneath it where the water runs off under the deck, never getting the customers’ feet or their packages wet. As a bonus this establishment has set themselves apart with a unique look that is inviting and visually appealing, while also protecting our couples from the elements. Problem solved!

Or is it? Where can we take this next? That is our continuing journey.


Excellent reading and superb reasoning in the umbrella example. Though innovation takes birth out of need, I always think; and kindly correct me if I am wrong; that a person should have that genuine willingness to find a solution to his problem backed by the "need". Unless one is thoroughly motivated enough he cannot and will not even think of solving a problem in-spite of his pressing need. There definitely has to be a "desire" then "willingness" and then the "push" to the mind to get up and start an activity....Many a times a person is well within the reach of solving a problem by visualizing probable solutions and these solutions could be innovations but just stay in the mind only due to absolute lack of willingness to get up and "just do it" or to "nike it" (just using the punch line of the Nike brand!)
Now in a company there are many such talents which I feel are just "latent" or dormant or should I say even extinct only due to their lack of desire or willingness. I think just teaching a person to innovate or be a problem solver or as is taught in workshops the tools of innovation or tips for problem solving cannot see any change in that individual if he is not motivated inwardly so unless his mental "umbrella" is opened, I don't think he can ever succeed just by learning the tools of innovation...
Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts...I appreciate and I also appreciate your good work on innovation...!!!
Thanks and warn regards
Sanjay Inamdar, Pune, India