Having Fun Saving the World
Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Tom Kruer.
By Paul Arnold
The groundwater contamination by arsenic in Bangladesh is a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale, often referred to as the largest mass poisoning in history. Mitigation efforts are underway across the country, but the scale of the task is enormous and many challenges remain.
Chemists Without Borders, an organization focused on solving humanitarian issues, teamed up with IdeaConnection to provide solutions to five critical challenges affecting the health of millions of Bangladeshis.
One of the problem solvers to lend his time, skills, talents and expertise was Tom Kruer, a leader in innovation-focused organizations. A prodigious problem solver, he has been involved in more than 300 new product development programs and there are approximately 50 products that have his contributions in them somewhere.
In this interview he talks about his experience as a problem solver and of providing novel solutions to a water treatment challenge in Bangladesh.
As the team got into this it was obvious the seeker was not necessarily the most technically qualified to complete the task. So what I did was to push for reconfiguring the problem statement so that we were looking for a solution they could do. That’s what I brought to the table.
The real problem is: what can the seeker hope to accomplish with their resources for a maximized affect? The first aspect of problem solving is defining the problem and that is probably what I do best. In this case, the problem was not how to ship the most material overseas to have the biggest impact on people’s availability of clean water, it was: what can the seeker do to make sure that the hundreds of solutions that are out there are the most effective for the people they are trying to help?
Do you find that some of the common good problem statements are too broad in scope, too pie in the sky?
In many of my interfacing with people who want to do good things, they do have these idealistic goals of making huge changes. However, a small change well within their abilities is all that’s needed to make those major changes in the long term. It’s almost decreasing the scope of the project definition to focus on the most critical thing they can address.
And in so doing, you hopefully achieve the same outcome that guided them when they wrote the original problem statement?
Correct. I never assume that the person coming to me with a problem really understands what the problem is – that’s kind of my mantra.
Once you redefined the problem, how did the team set about coming up with solutions?
I presented two different concepts. One didn’t involve any chemicals at all as it was an iPhone app. There are all kinds of solutions already out there, but no one has a database that says, given these conditions this is the ultimate solution, or this is the solution that already exists that’s most applicable for these sets of conditions. So you write an iPhone app that taps into a database that Chemists Without Borders maintains and work up the most appropriate solution. This directs the stakeholder to that solution and the problem is solved. The problem is solved in days and weeks as opposed to coming up with a new technology.
So it’s devising a program to access information that’s already out there in the most effective and meaningful way for a person searching for it?
Exactly, and Chemists Without Borders has a network to create that database very effectively and keep it up to date. It falls within their skillsets and it also falls within their resource limitations. They don’t have a whole lot of money to spend developing new technologies so it’s helping them do what they’re best at – they’re best at being chemists and evaluating the solutions that are being proposed.
Why do you get involved with public good challenges and give your time for free?
Because I enjoy it.
That’s a good reason.
I enjoy the challenge of a new problem and it heightens and improves my skills, not only being challenged with new and different things around the world, but also meeting new people and learning how to deal with different personalities. So I’m learning in the process and giving back some of my skills to people who may benefit from them. That’s one of my main motivations in life.
I’m a teacher at heart and I teach people how I work just by showing them, but also I teach them new ways of looking at new things. So even if they don’t take the solution I propose they can at least re-figure the problems so they are looking at them in new ways.
So challenging and stretching yourself is important to you?
I tend to stretch myself and that maybe some of the self-centered aspect of changing the definition of a problem just so it’s harder.
To raise the bar even higher?
Rather than helping 100,000 people, let’s help one hundred million, so the contributions I am making can be spread around even further. Getting back to the water treatment challenge, we could come up with a solution that was applicable to the villages of Africa, but not applicable in Bangladesh. So why not come up with a solution that is applicable for everybody?
What is your hope for the solution you presented?
At this point in time I let it go. It is totally up to the seeker how to pursue it or whether to pursue it. Ideally, the solution I come up with is so good that the seeker will pursue it and implement it around the world, but I have no control over that.
If I really want to see something happen I’ll do it myself and use my network of people to implement it. But I chose not to do that in some things because of the time limitations I have. Here’s the way I see it. The seeker has decided to become involved in this particular arena. If my solution or the team’s solution is so good they decide to pursue it, then it’s going to happen. If they decide not to do it then either I haven’t come up with the ultimate solution – in which case better luck next time – or the idea is still there and it may come back to me in another situation or challenge.
Whatever happens it won’t go to waste?
How many public good challenges have you worked on?
This is probably number 20.
And you do this for because a) it’s an interesting challenge and b) to do some good that benefits a lot of people?
Yes, and there’s also ‘c’ and that is I get to meet lots of interesting people. For me it is meeting those people and putting them in my network so when I am faced with a new challenge I call them up. I launch companies with my networks. I’m always looking for good people, those personalities that really mesh well with me and vice versa and have skills that complement my own.
Do these people have to be like you, or be able to work with you?
They have to be able to work with me. There’s a wonderful saying a couple of guys in my network and I came up with – if we think the same about everything, if we think identically, one of us is redundant. I want people who challenge me and look at problems in completely different ways than I do and look for solutions in their realms of expertise and experience that are dramatically different from mine. People that come into my networks are very diverse and extremely different.
I imagine the discussions are always lively.
Oh they better be. One of the other reasons I do this is that my personal mantra is that I am having fun saving the world.
You are having a ball?
Oh absolutely I tell everyone that if I’m not having fun I walk away and do something else. I have the luxury of being able to do that, and that also allows me the opportunity to put other people in the same position of doing what they enjoy doing. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing it’s never work, it’s a pleasurable experience and a great way to spend your time.