Simon Sinek on How to Avoid Useless Innovation and Solve Human Problems

In Chapter 8 of 20 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, author and leadership expert Simon Sinek shares his favorite definition of innovation - the application of technology to solve human problems. He highlights several product advancements that do not answer human problems, causing a breakdown in innovation thinking. He uses a toaster as an example of useful innovation that meets his criteria: the application of technology to solve human problems. Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who applies his curiosity around why people do what they do to teach leaders and companies how to inspire people. He is the author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Sinek holds a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.


Erik Michielsen: How do you define innovation?

Simon Sinek: Well, I mean a definition I like is the application of technology to solve human problems. I know that not all innovation is about technology. I know that, but I like that, if we have a very broad definition of innovation.

Erik Michielsen: Why does that register so well with you?

Simon Sinek: Because the important part, to me, is the solving of human problems. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. And I think, especially in the technology world, we become obsessed with the fact that we can, not that we should. And we call “innovation” where it’s really nonsense. I mean for example, do you remember when if you wanted to watch – if you needed a projector – you used to pull the string down to get the screen down.

Like, what problem were they solving getting rid of the string? You know now everything has a button. And by the way, those buttons and those motors break all the time. I don’t ever recall that string being a problem. And yet we feel the need because we can put motors on buttons on things, that we should put a motor and button on that. It’s like, you look at a Toyota Prius, and everything is touch screen. So if you’re following the GPS and your phone rings, you lose the GPS! Or, if you want to change the temperature, you know, or if you wanna – you have to take four screens – what happened with knobs and buttons? Like, what’s wrong with turning up your volume like this, for your radio? Like, what human problem are we solving? The answer is we’re not solving any human problems. That’s the problem with that kind of technology. It’s pointless.

One of the best pieces of innovation I’ve seen lately is my toaster, which is – and I bought my toaster specifically for this feature – which is, you push a toaster down to make it toast and then it pops up. In my toaster, you can lift the button up and it lifts the toast out so you don’t have to go picking it out with a fork or a knife. That’s innovation! That’s the application of some sort of technology, or engineering in this case, to solve a human problem. And, uh, I think just because we can do things, whether engineers or technologists, or on the Internet, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should. And if you have the capacity to do something big make sure you’re solving a real problem that exists, not something that doesn’t. [Erik laughs] I have more respect for my toaster than I do a Toyota Prius.