Three problem-solving prompts

1/ What is the asymptotic limit? To be a multi-planet species, says Elon Musk, people will need to design, build, and use reusable rockets. Okay. Is that possible? One way is to think to the limit. “Look at the raw materials of a rocket: aluminum, steel, titanium, Inconel, speciality alloys, copper. Now ask the weight and raw material value. That sets the asymptotic limit for how low the cost and weight can be unless you change the materials.” Musk calls this the magic wand number. What’s the cost if you had a magic wand to rearrange the atoms?

Another way Musk uses limits is to think about scale. Making many versions of a thing is much much harder than one version. This too is a problem for Disney imagineers, writes Kevin Rafferty. Coming up with attractions is fun but the hard work is what Rafferty calls ‘day two problems’. What happens when this thing has to be open for ten hours a day 365 days a year?

2/ Is this a money problem? Starting the cable channel Discovery, John Hendricks had a lot of challenges. One was content, but that was easy. The BBC was willing to sell their documentaries to Hendricks and enjoy the found money. Later Netflix would take this to detrimental consequences to the content providers, but in 1985 Ted Sarandos was managing eight video rental stores in Arizona.

But there was cable regulation working against Hendricks. The deregulation of cable (like with airlines) wasn’t a money problem. Host Guy Raz analogizes it to having a new iced tea and having to call every convenience store operator in America to get on the shelves. Hendricks then had one problem that was a money problem but another that was a political one.

3/ Is this a branding problem? One of the covid lessons ‘we clearly haven’t learned‘ according to Zeynep Tufekci is to follow best practice. “We have everything we need,” she told Ezra Klein, “not a day goes by that I don’t get a pitch for some gimmick, some new mask that is blah blah blah. Thank you, but I just need an N95. I don’t need your new potentially miraculous science.”

This, says Rory Sutherland, is a marketing mistake. Good marketing changes the perceived value without changing the thing. Good marketing is ‘being better than Superman‘. To Tufekci, we’ve not figured this out – yet.

2a March 24 update, winter wheat is the largest wheat crop in the world and that has to be planted in certain places at certain times. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going to influence how much the planted wheat can be harvested. This is not a money problem.

The Leatherman JTBD

Just because something looks like a job to be done doesn’t mean it is a job to be done.

Tim Leatherman was in Vietnam in the 1970s. He noticed that all the Japanese motor bikes had luggage racks for transporting goods but that all the Vespa scooters did not. So with the help of his brother-in-law, Leatherman designed and built one hundred racks for Vespa scooters. He arranged for consignment distribution and hired someone to pass out leaflets.

It seemed like a good fit. There was demonstrated demand. There were motorbikes everywhere! “But when we left Vietnam there were still 97 in the bedroom of our house. It turned out that the people who rode Vespas considered themselves a class above and they had maids who went out and did the shopping.”

The JTBD of a scooter was personal transport and something else. For some people the something else was goods transport, for others it was status.

Leatherman’s podcast with Guy Raz included a second JTBD lesson.

Tim wanted to design a knife with pliers, patent it, and license the idea to the major knife companies. Once he had a working prototype he went to Gerber but they declined, saying it was a tool and not a knife. Everyone knows not to bring a tool to a knife fight. Ok, thought Tim, I’ll pitch this to the tool companies. “And the message I got back from them was, ‘Sorry this is a gadget and gadgets don’t sell.'”

In this case the knife and tool companies confused the category for the job. Much like a hardware company might think they are in the business of just making quarter-inch drill bits when really the customer wants the quarter-inch hole.

The JTBD of Headspace is feeling better through action. The JTBD of dining out is food and atmosphere. The JTBD of Jazzercise was dancing and a dancer’s body.

‘Jobs’ is a great mental model and thanks to Leatherman and Raz for sharing another pair of examples.