Consider the Categories
Editor's Note: This is a brief excerpt from Chapter Four.
Another way to find a solution to a problem—whether it's a specific problem or a general quest for improvement and invention—is to frame a question and then look for a solution based one of the five categories of disaggregation: authority, ownership, mechanics, space/time, or concepts. Starting with the same question as before, "My widget relies on gizmos from Acme, but deliveries from Acme are too unreliable," we can reformulate our Acme problem. Here are some possibilities:
- "Acme doesn't inform us of its shipping schedules in a timely fashion." Perhaps it is time to propose joint ownership of the data. Joint ownership is a good way to encourage sharing.
- "Maybe Acme doesn't think we'll pay on time?" An escrow agreement can solve that problem by disaggregating authority over payment to a trusted third party. Disaggregation of authority leads to trust.
And so on and so forth in various combinations.
A simple example of stating the problem in terms of categories can be seen in the case of AT&T back in the 1980s. The U.S. government, among others, believed that the problem they faced was AT&T's almost complete ownership of the local and long-distance telephony market. When you formulate the problem that way, the solution is straightforward: the government forced AT&T to disaggregate into separate organizations.
Smash and Grab
Brainstorming provides an excellent source of new ideas, whether you're trying to solve a specific problem or whether you're simply trying to generate new and profitable ideas. I find brainstorming both very rewarding and very enjoyable.
To brainstorm a solution based on disaggregation, I recommend a technique I call "smash and grab": smash the existing links and grab the innovations that look valuable. Brainstorming in this way requires knowledge of the basic principles of disaggregation, a decent understanding of the field you're trying to improve, a flexible definition of what you want to achieve, and a willingness to play with each and every idea that comes along to see where it leads.
The technique consists of a walk-through. Imagine each step in the process, whether it's something simple like ordering a newspaper subscription or something complex like constructing a building. Then ask yourself along the way about the linkages, the connections, and the assumptions that seem to dictate that this step has to be connected to that step, or that this item must have a relationship with that item. Break off small pieces, large pieces, or entire functions and see where that leads you. Look to your competitors and your customers; break apart their technologies as well. Then try to recombine all the scattered pieces in different ways. How about if this piece were grouped with that piece? In the next section, we'll discuss the importance of connecting the disaggregated pieces together again.
One way to help move a brainstorming session along is to consider the categories along the same lines we mentioned just before. Brainstorm various ways to disaggregate authority, ownership, space/time, and the rest. Look at the universal benefits and apply them to your problem, even if they seem totally inappropriate. Remember, it's a brainstorming session, and no idea is rejected out of hand.
A colleague once asked me, as a challenge, to come up with an idea of how to disaggregate a restaurant. I had a few suggestions immediately, but a while later I decided to brainstorm the answer. I went through each of the steps in the processes of going out to a restaurant, from making the reservations to paying the bill at the end of the meal. I discovered that each step can be disaggregated to a greater or lesser extent. Given that restaurants have been around since the dawn of recorded history, even ideas that seemed somewhat outlandish to me (and that takes some doing) have existed someplace in practice. Can authority over what's on the menu be disaggregated? Certainly: the menu at a franchise restaurant is set by corporate headquarters. Can the ownership of the tables and chairs in a restaurant be disaggregated? Yes, and many malls in the United States actually have a similar arrangement: a "food court" with tables and chairs in a common area instead of separate sections for each restaurant. What about the meal itself—is it part and parcel of one restaurant's service, or can it come from multiple sources? A friend of mine ate a disaggregated lunch at a bazaar in India—he placed his order with a waiter who then gathered courses from several different restaurants to create a complete meal.