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Do You Have A Better Idea?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86 and Barry Nalebuff

The following article was published in Parade Magazine on March 25, 2007.
Do You Have A Better Idea?
By Ian Ayres '86 and Barry Nalebuff

Back in the days of typewriters, the mother of Monkees guitarist Mike Nesmith got tired of retyping to correct mistakes. So Bette Nesmith cooked up the first batch of Liquid Paper in a blender and poured it into a nail-polish container. She eventually sold the business to Gillette for $48 million.

To come up with great ideas, you just need to pay attention to things that annoy you. And you have to be willing to challenge the status quo. Creativity isn’t some magical process. It’s often possible to generate great ideas by taking an existing approach and simply flipping it around. Like Robert F. Kennedy, instead of asking “why?” we like to ask “why not?”

The inventions we have in mind, like Bette Nesmith’s Liquid Paper, are low-tech solutions—the kind that seem obvious in hindsight. All of us can come up with good ideas that improve our world every day. For example, who knows more than airline crews about the problem of lugging heavy suitcases? And, indeed, in 1989 Northwest pilot Bob Plath got a patent for rolling luggage. (His trick: partially recessed wheels, so the bag fits into overhead compartments.) It enhanced earlier models, including one designed by a flight attendant. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just adapting the wheelbarrow to luggage.

Here are some other ideas that could improve our lives:

Too many people die waiting for transplants.

More than 95,000 Americans currently are waiting for organs, and the list gets longer each year. In 2007, an estimated 7,000 people will die waiting. Clearly, we don’t have enough organ donors to meet demand. According to a Gallup poll, only 53% of Americans have signed organ-donor forms.


Switch to an “opt-out” method for organ donation.
In other words, you are an organ donor unless you explicitly opt out. Right now, we have an “opt-in” system to become a donor, usually by filling out a form for your driver’s license. Why not say that everyone is a donor—unless they opt not to be? You still have a choice: In such a program, family members often are given a chance to object. Spain made the switch in 1979. Now 80% of Spaniards are potential organ donors, and Spain has virtually no waiting list. Opt-out also is the norm in 19 other European countries. Research suggests that moving to opt-out in the U.S. would increase organ donations by up to 30%.


Staying motivated to work out & lose weight.

It’s common for people to pay fees to join health clubs, then stop going within the first few months of their memberships.


Create a financial incentive to exercise.

How about a health club that paid you to work out? Here’s how it would work: Let’s say a fitness center normally charges about $600 for an annual membership. Imagine instead that the fee is $850, but they pay you back $10 for each week that you exercise. The only way to retrieve your money is to work out for it. Thus, by paying you to go, the health club ensures that you’ll get fit.


When postal rates go up, you can’t use the stamps you already have.
You must make a pilgrimage to the post office to purchase penny stamps in order to salvage your old stock.


A forever stamp.

As we brace for the next rate increase this spring, the U.S. Postal Service has a twist. It has proposed selling a forever stamp: You buy the stamp now for the price of a first-class stamp, and it will be good for a first-class letter no matter what the rate goes to in the future.

This why-not idea has been standard practice in England since 1989. It has been used in Singapore and France and, since last November, in Canada. A version of it has even been tried in the U.S.

This never-goes-out-of-date approach, by the way, also could be applied to airfares (a forever round-trip ticket, say, from New York to L.A.), gas (you buy 100 gallons at today’s price that you can pump anytime) or gift certificates (good for a specific item—say, a pair of chinos or a music CD—whatever the price).


People speak too loudly on their cell phones in public places.

An Associated Press poll found that more than 80% of Americans said they encounter people using cell phones in an annoying manner. 


A warning light.

This idea comes from a second-grade class in Amherst, Mass. The teacher installed a decibel traffic light that switches from green to yellow to red as the level of ambient noise increases. The class got a lot quieter. The “talk light” looks just like a regular traffic light and can be adjusted to go off anywhere between 40 and 120 decibels (a washing machine is about 75 decibels).

Amtrak could install such lights as reminders in its quiet cars (where cell phones are banned) or even in all of its train cars. If someone speaks too loudly, a light on top of the seat ahead turns on, so that the talker (and any fellow passenger) sees that the volume is too high. The idea also could work in restaurants, where noise can escalate to the point where, as Yogi Berra might say, “it’s so loud, nobody can hear anything.” A discreet warning-light table decoration could do the trick.


Preparing taxes is too taxing.

For those of us who take deductions, figuring out our tax owed requires a personalized approach. But many Americans just take the standard deduction.


A prefilled tax form.

This is taking a page from credit-card bills. MasterCard doesn’t ask you to save all your receipts each month and then figure out how much you owe. It sends you an itemized bill. With all the reporting to the IRS, the agency could simply send you a prefilled tax form. All you may have to do is pay the bill. And since the information came from the IRS, you probably wouldn’t get audited.


Too many R-rated DVDs.

The typical DVD includes bonus material that often consists of extra sex and violence. Why not go the other way?


Specially created PG-13 DVDs.

The Hollywood studios could release PG versions of R-rated films. They already provide such movies for airlines, as well as versions that eliminate sex scenes for Muslim countries and versions with the violence toned down for European audiences. That’s right. The product exists. Why not have the Saudi version sold in the U.S. as well?

And here’s another idea we love. It’s not really a problem but rather an opportunity: Why not set up a charitable collection box in front of airport metal detectors, as is often done in front of cash registers? That way, as you empty your pockets of change, you can make a quick contribution. Imagine feeling good about going through airport security.

Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff are professors at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management, respectively. They are the authors of “Why Not? How To Use Everyday Ingenuity To Solve Problems Big and Small” (Harvard Business School Press).

How To Think Outside The Box

We offer you two simple tools for coming up with great ideas:

• Open your eyes and “plagiarize.” Inspired by the Tom Lehrer song, the idea is to look around you and see how things are done in other countries or contexts. What smart solutions already exist, and how can they be adapted or adopted for your problem?

• The flip. Instead of doing something one way, why not try it the other way around? Sometimes it will work worse, other times better. Or you might find that the reverse approach will solve a different problem. For example: Lay’s potato chips had the slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one.” Try turning this around: How about a chip where you can eat just one? While that might not be what you want for a Super Bowl party, most times we’d rather have a chip that didn’t lead us to overeat. Indeed, Frito-Lay has started to offer its chips in portion-control packages.