edwin landIn 1943 Edwin Land was on holiday in Santa Fe with his family. He took a photograph of his three year old daughter, Jennifer. She asked why she could not see the result straight away and she kept asking why. Land, who had studied chemistry, pondered this question and an idea formed in his mind. He went on to develop the Polaroid camera, a revolutionary product which sold over 150 million units and made Land into a celebrity. His daughter’s naive question had led him to challenge the assumptions that the whole photography industry took for granted.

Land was born in 1909, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He attended Harvard University for a year but dropped out and moved to New York where he continued to experiment. During the day he studied and at the New York Public Library and at night he conducted research independently at a Columbia University laboratory. As a result he developed a remarkable advance in polarizing light technology which he called the Polaroid J sheet. In 1937 he co-founded the Polaroid Corporation to develop his ideas.

Polaroid technology found many practical applications including in sunglasses and night-vision goggles. During the war Land’s company developed a method to reveal enemy camouflage and it went on to design systems for the U2 spy plane. But its biggest success was the Polaroid camera which proved very popular. It stayed on the market for 50 years.

At work, Land was known for his diligence, his long hours in the lab and his progressive management policies. He hired women and minorities for research and management positions at a time when they were more likely to be offered secretarial or clerical roles. He carried out major research in the fields of optics, light, photography, colour perception and sight. He held hundreds of patents. He had been too busy to complete his studies at Harvard but in 1957 the University awarded him an honorary doctorate for his lifetime of scientific achievement.

Here are three insights we can glean from Edwin Land’s story.

Challenge assumptions by asking basic and childlike questions. At work we tend to ask one or two questions and then plunge into ideas and discussion. But by asking more questions, and more basic even childlike questions, we can discover insights that challenge our assumptions and allow us to reach deeper issues and better solutions. Edwin Land did this and went on to find a radically different and faster way to produce photographs.

Reach for the unattainable star. Land said this, ‘Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.’ Great innovators tackle problems which others consider too difficult or too risky.

Why should customers wait? If people suffer any inconvenience in service then there is an opportunity for an innovator to offer an improvement. Land’s daughter expressed a need that many customers had but did not express. Why do we have to wait? Find the source of customer difficulty and you have found a starting point for innovation.

Based on a chapter in Paul Sloane’s new book, Think Like an Innovator, published by Pearson.