Most people believe that innovation springs from an exciting new technology that promises incredible benefits.  Others believe that entrepreneurial success arises from incredible insight into specific unmet needs.  I'm here to tell you that many innovations arise when you address problems that others have recognized but decided aren't theirs to solve.  This is what I call solving the "not my problem" problem.

You are already likely familiar with the "not my problem" problem.  For instance, you may acquire a product and wish to appropriately dispose of the product it replaces, or wish to appropriately dispose of a highly toxic but depleted battery.  The vendor, the retail outlet and others will simply respond - that's nice, but it's not my problem.  These challenges and opportunities exist in almost every interaction or setting.  People know these problems exist, yet the process models and operating structures of existing companies simply ignore them.  As an innovator, your opportunity is to exploit them.

What is a "not my problem" problem

A "not my problem" problem is a need or gap that a vendor or the channel has simply chosen not to solve.  Many times the challenge or problem falls just outside of the way they define a market, or the way their business models are constructed.  I once led ethnographic research for a financial services institution that was interested in helping executors manage wills.  In our research we found that one of the biggest challenges was managing the physical assets left behind by the deceased individual.  The financial institutions were interested in managing the monetary assets, but didn't care about the physical assets - antiques, furniture, cars or boats and so forth.  They weren't familiar with managing them or valuing them.  Tangible assets weren't a problem the financial institutions chose to solve, although they were big headaches for the executors.  While everyone recognized that the executors had a difficult time accounting for and managing physical assets, no one seemed ready to solve this problem.

Finding and Solving these problems

Good innovators, carefully evaluating a business process, market or customer interaction, will have little trouble finding these "not my problem" problems.  They exist at the intersection of two business processes or two vendors, neither of which wants ownership or responsibility for an exchange or an externality.  These problems are out there, waiting to be solved.  They are adjacencies to existing services and business models.  These opportunities often exist because of business model rigidity or inflexible business processes as well.

Another reason they are often ignored or overlooked is because these problems are frequently solved by the application of people or process rather than technology.  In an era when everyone wants to start a virtual business and scale it quickly, there are lots of entrepreneurial opportunities where true sweat equity is still valuable.  These needs aren't often glamorous but they are real needs that customers are willing to pay to have solved.

Solving the Not my problem Problem

A good example of the "not my problem" solution is a good friend's business.  He noticed a gap in trash collection and hauling, specifically for major events.  The large waste disposal companies like to run predictable trash routes with specific pickups.  Major events often overflow traditional trash barrels or dumpsters but major waste collection vendors don't provide customized services and on the fly pickup.  A "not my problem" problem became a new business for a friend, because he spotted the opportunity and addressed it, offering highly customized trash services to large events.

Finding and solving these "not my problem' problems may not lead to the next high tech startup, but there are plenty of opportunities for innovation or starting a new business to solve them.