asking different questions, solving different problems

The freaks, weirdos, and innovators – the people who stand out and stand different – are often different only because they are solving different problems than the rest of us. Put another way, their solutions are different because their goals and questions are different.

Southwest Airlines operates so differently from other airlines in large part because when they started out they were not competing with other airlines. Instead, they decided to compete against buses and trains and even cars. Their insight and innovations came from solving different problems.

When you look at all the different types of cars on the road it’s clear that different people are solving different problems. A turbodiesel pickup solves different problems than a sports car which solves different problems than a minivan or an SUV and they solve different problems than economy cars.

A few days ago a new car was released. It’s a performance luxury sedan that will accelerate from 0-60 in a hair under 4.5 seconds (that’s deep into sports car territory) and has a lower center of gravity and potentially better handling than any other sedan. The dealer and will come to the customer’s location for maintenance and can do a lot of repairs remotely using a built in wireless connection into the car’s computer. It costs about $55k – $105k depending on options and performance levels. This car clearly has BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Audi, etc. right in its sights. Oh, and it’s a new company based in the US which is a sister to an aerospace company. Interested? Appearance and performance alone got my attention, but the most intriguing part is that it is 100% electric.

Actually, that’s not true. I really like the car, or at least what the car potentially promises, but what I most appreciate is that this company – Tesla – chose to solve a completely different set of problems. Other electric cars choose to be funky looking, easily identifiable, and aimed at environmentalists and Hollywood activists. The emphasis is on “electric” and they designed to appeal to those who are most interested in demonstrating to the world how Green they are.

Tesla, on the other hand, appears to have decided to build a really great car, a car whose appearance, price, and performance would appeal to anyone seeking a performance luxury sedan. It just happens to have an electric motor rather than a gas engine. They see the electric motor as a solution to performance, not necessarily environmental, problems. As a result, this car is competing against gasoline engines, not other electric cars. And that has the potential to be a complete game changer.

I haven’t driven one, I can’t speak to whether or not it’s a good car, and this isn’t an ad for Tesla. I am, however, impressed that they chose to blow up the old business model and change the game. Perhaps the most significant thing they did early on was define their competition rather than letting their competition define them. Just as Southwest Air did 40 or so years ago, they asked different questions and got different answers.

This can be done in any business, but takes courage and a willingness to stand apart. We even see this in Human Resources. The traditional question is: How do we stay compliant? The game changing question (with all due credit to Jason Lauritsen) is: How will HR support and increase company performance?

What question will change things in your industry? At your company? In your career?