My favorite saying is “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I used to say it to my children as I was figuring out how to fix a favorite plaything, or invent a new game to play while stuck in traffic, or prepare a meal without all the needed ingredients. Or a million other things. Life is full of times when spontaneous fixes are needed. Even when lists are made, plans are pondered and prepared, research is done – things still go wrong. And even when they go right, unanticipated difficulties arise. It is in these situations that creativity and ingenuity often thrive.
A few years ago I moved to China to set up operations for my American employer. I had no prior experience and little knowledge of doing business in China – just a few things gathered from books and the internet. I created a plan based on the resources and budget provided to me. I was given office space in a lovely house shared by other small businesses. Theoretically it provided support services such as reception, business telephones, supplies and equipment, and janitorial services.
The reality was something quite different. The building receptionist spoke no English, so she could not answer calls in my absence (my client contacts were English speakers). My Chinese was limited to communicating with taxi drivers. So I needed to invent a solution for communicating when I was away from the office. An answering machine seemed like the best solution, so I went in search of one. My office was in an area of Shanghai that had little international presence or English speakers, so I printed out a picture and description of an answering machine and began my quest. There were several office supply stores and computer stores in the area, but no answering machines anywhere. I finally gave up and moved on to an alternative solution – ditch the landline phone altogether and use only a cell phone. So I called my contacts and said “forget what it says on my business card, you can reach me at this number instead.”
This solution not only worked well, it taught me unexpected things: that, at the time, the preferred means of leaving messages was texting, and many businesspeople didn’t even have landline telephones, just cell phones (I also learned that no one used the term “cell phone” so I learned to say “mobile phone”). So the necessity resulted in both a solution and acquisition of practical business knowledge.
I had many more opportunities to invent solutions while in China. And I am convinced that the skills and knowledge gained by using creative problem solving are more satisfying and enduring than those gained in other ways. What has triggered your inventive side lately? What problems do you turn into opportunities for learning?