In Business the goal is to solve problems. We all have needs and if those are not met or insufficiently so, it results in pain. Although, we will never be able to eliminate all pain and live happily ever after — because humans just don’t work like that — ideally, a product or service relieves us of pain by upgrading it to a better, more tolerable pain.
For example, when the bicycle was invented people suddenly would get faster from A to B than by walking. Furthermore, their feet would hurt much less than before after travelling a long distance. But the bicycle didn’t erase all pain involved in long distance travelling. Instead people had to deal with new pains like a hurting ass and legs. However, the new pains were much more tolerable than the old ones and together with the benefit of fast travel this innovation truly improved people’s lives. Hence, innovation is essentially exchanging one pain with a more tolerable one.
In a lot of cases, however, the product or service does not upgrade our pain or solve our problem. Instead what products like alcohol, streaming, porn, etc. often do is mitigate a problem (e.g. the pain of boredom). They temporarily numb a pain, which often returns later on. Mark Manson calls these products diversions in his book Everything is Fucked and argues that they don’t create actual value. Diversions don’t make the world or even the customers life better but only provide the illusion of happiness or the temporary alleviation of pain.
The problem is that at a certain point the focus starts to shift in a society. Instead of working on solving actual problems (meaning exchanging a big pain with a lesser or better pain) companies start to focus on creating more diversions. This is because it is a lot less riskier to go for the safe diversion-business route. Often what is called innovation nowadays is more about how to scale diversions rather than truly transforming the way we live. At this point innovations happen less and progress starts to stagnate. The Founders Fund, brought to life by Peter Thiel, describes the situation best:
“The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later.. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.”
“We just give people what they want!” Is a bad excuse for introducing products and services to the world that only help people avoid problems instead of facing them and actually changing the situation. Not only are diversions not helping, they even cause tremendous harm because people loose the ability to face pain or even to be uncomfortable. The whole rise of outrage-culture is essentially based on “I can’t deal with this thing that makes me uncomfortable so don’t let me be confronted by it.” Distracting ourselves from pain and buying too much into diversions makes us all more fragile and inhibits progress.
Of course, we should still listen to customers and design products and services in a human centered way. However, people are too focused on cynical and incremental improvements nowadays, and often want diversions rather than what can truly help them. Think about if what people want is solving actual problems or if it is just another way for them to avoid confronting their pain. It would be the safe route to create diversions, however, this is not improving our lives. In order to create positive transformational change we need to take risks and develop truly innovative products and services to the marketplace. Be bold, innovate!