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If You're Struggling to Solve a Problem, You May Be Looking at Things Just 1% Wrong

The good news is... you're 99% of the way there.

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This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

This article is excerpted from the new book Build for Tomorrow.

We are in a moment of great change, and that change has surely come for you. Perhaps you've been forced to adapt to the unpredictable. Or you've pivoted. Or released a or service. I'm going to guess that, in some way, you feel like these changes have been equal parts success and failure — that something is working very well, but you aren't fully happy or satisfied. Maybe a small wellspring of panic is brewing.

Why?

I'll tell you my theory: It's because you're 99% there. And that last 1% hurts the most.

This is like hiking a mountain with a pebble in your shoe: It doesn't really matter if your legs are strong enough to conquer the incline, or if your shoes grip the earth tightly enough, because if the tiniest, most infinitesimal part of that rock formation ends up underneath your heel, it can bring you to a halt. You must stop, take off your shoe, and locate that tiny part.

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Sometimes, the most impactful part of a journey is also the smallest part.

So how can you locate it? And how can you make it better?

To start, you need to understand what I call the "99% There" problem. It's time to back up.

Image Credit: Nicolás Ortega

When Miley Cyrus twerked at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, prudes were aghast. "We're on a moral downward spiral," conservative radio host Laura Ingraham told her listeners at the time. "What you're hearing is the end of the culture." But in truth, Ingraham was just echoing a centuries-old complaint: A new reaches mainstream culture, and traditionalists use it as a stand-in for everything they find objectionable about their own fading relevance. It famously happened with jazz and rock and roll — but the mother of all dance scandals, and arguably the very first true dance-inspired crisis, was the waltz.

In the early 1800s, European society was absolutely scandalized by the waltz. London's The Times, for example, called it an "obscene display" for "prostitutes and adulteresses." The British Romantic poet Lord Byron wrote a nearly 2,000-word poem about how much he hated the dance. A society man named Theodore Hook — who, on a completely unrelated note, is credited as the inventor of the picture postcard — despised the waltz so much that he got into a duel over it with a waltz-loving military general. They each shot once and called it a day.

Antiwaltzers at the time talked a lot about how unhealthy the dance was, and how the human body wasn't made to endure all that spinning. A 19th-century doctor claimed that habitual dancing would take years off your life — calculating that the average life span for a waltzer was 37 years for a man, and 25 years for a woman. In one way, this was nothing new: Victorian-era doctors had also warned that novels might make women infertile, and in the 1800s, doctors warned of a medical condition called "bicycle face" — a permanent disfigurement caused by the strain of attempting to keep the bicycle balanced.

But intriguingly, the doctors of the late 1800s were correct about the waltz: It actually was bad for people's health.

The doctors were just wrong about why.

Doctors noted that after waltzing, some people fell ill. "Dancers were reported to have developed bronchitis and even pneumonia after waltzing. This led some doctors to blame the dance itself as the cause," says Mark Knowles, author of the book The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances, who is on the faculty of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Therefore, doctors believed, the dance itself was the problem. Our bodies were not built to withstand that much spinning and touching.

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But here's what those doctors didn't consider, according to Knowles: The dance happened in a ballroom with no ventilation, because buildings back then weren't designed for good airflow. Things were even worse in the winter, when windows and doors were closed. Candles or gas lights would illuminate the room, which poured noxious chemicals into the air. The floor was sometimes lined with a big piece of linen called a "crash cloth," which enabled dancers to glide more easily — but when dancers traversed them, their feet released lint from the cloth that filled the air with minute linen particles. When these were inhaled, they could cause serious problems in the lungs. And on top of all that, proper women's attire at the time called for petticoats, which could be heavy, and tightly laced corsets that made breathing difficult.

In short, the pure act of waltzing was perfectly healthy. It was 99% there. But many things around the waltz were insane and deadly. That 1% needed to be solved before the waltz was 100% enjoyable.

Now let's fast-forward a few centuries and look at a modern cause for safety concern: electric scooters. If you've visited a major city recently, you've surely seen these things. They're made by companies such as Lime and Bird, and the first time you come upon one, you think it's a mistake.

Here's this little device, left unaccompanied on a sidewalk, available to anyone. But that's its most compelling feature. To locate a Lime scooter, for example, just open Lime's app and it'll show you where all available scooters are on a map. When you approach one and scan its QR code, the wheels unlock. Just turn the handle and zip away, fueled by an electric-powered engine that can move between 15 and 20 miles per hour. In , for example, you'll be charged one dollar to unlock the scooter and then 30 cents per minute. When you're done, just leave it at a bike rack or a sidewalk "furniture zone." Someone else will find it soon.

The scooters started appearing in cities around 2017 and were welcomed with hostility. The Philadelphia Inquirer summed it up in this headline: "Electric Scooters Have Brought Chaos and Outrage in Cities Across the Country." People treated these devices as a wildly new intrusion onto city streets — which, historically speaking, they are not. The first motorized scooters hit the streets around 1916, and were a largely welcome addition. That year, The [New York City] Sun said scooters have "the disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel," which is a lastingly accurate description. But times are different. In 1916, roads were awash in people, commerce, and every newfangled machine on wheels. Today roads are almost entirely reserved for cars. Which means scooters don't feel like they belong.

Soon after the scooters were introduced in American cities in 2017, the narrative turned to safety: Scooters, many people said, were too dangerous. Cities started threatening to ban them. This, too, has a long history. In 1880, bicycles were banned from Central Park because the park commissioners thought they were a dangerous nuisance.

And yet, just like with doctors and the waltz, there is unfortunate truth to the safety concerns about electric scooters: People have crashed and even died while riding them (although multiple studies have found them to be no more dangerous than other transportation modes). So in one way, people's safety concerns seem reasonable: They see people being harmed on the scooters, and conclude that the scooter is the problem.

But what if the scooter is not the problem? And what if the problem is actually quite solvable?

Lime dug into its data on accidents in the U.S., seeking to understand what is happening. It looked at incident reports related to all rides for one calendar year, starting on March 1, 2019, which consisted of roughly 38 million scooter trips. It found that 99.985% of trips involved no safety incidents. Of the trips with incidents, 93% of them were minor scrapes or cuts that required no medical attention. This left 0.0011% of all trips assessed that required medical attention, hospitalization, or worse.

Lime then dug into that group, seeking patterns. It found that less-experienced riders made up the majority of these reported accidents, and 36% of incidents occurred during a rider's first five trips. With this insight, Lime launched a course program called First Ride in cities around the world. That way, people could take their first rides in controlled environments, and therefore safely move through the window when most serious accidents occur.

Now let's step back and look at these two very different situations — the waltz and the scooter. Both brought changes to people's culture and environment, and both were first adopted by young people. Both were believed to cause bodily harm, and those concerns were validated by real people who experienced real harm. As a result, both were targeted for elimination: People of the 1800s wanted to stop the waltz entirely, and people of the late 2010s aimed to take scooters off the streets.

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But after a closer examination, the waltz and the scooter are found to be statistically healthy activities. They are not inherently dangerous. Instead, the problem existed around the waltz and the scooter. It had to do with the environment that the waltz and scooter were experienced in — the 1% problem in 99% greatness.

Those problems were solvable and would result in broader adoption of change. The waltz would transition from a scandalous dance for kids into a classic dance for all. The scooter would go from a terrifying new obstacle to a common option for urban transportation.

These two stories helped me identify the "99% There" problem. If we want to find the real opportunity in something new and potentially scary, we cannot focus on the new thing itself. We must look in the margins around that new thing — making adjustments in the places where nobody else is looking, so that we transform something from "new and scary" into "can't live without."

And how can we do that in our own lives?

To find out, I decided to ask someone who transformed millions of small businesses and reshaped the way commerce happens. His name is Jim McKelvey, and he's the cofounder of Square.

I asked him what he thought of my theory. "It's good, perhaps great," he replied, but "it depends on if someone can use this for a competitive advantage or not."

Then he explained, with two words, how to do exactly that.

Image Credit: Nicolás Ortega

First, here's what you need to know about McKelvey. In 2009, he partnered with a friend named Jack Dorsey to introduce a tiny object called the Square Reader. It's that roughly inch-long reader that plugs into a handheld device, such as an iPhone or iPad, and transforms it into a digital cash register. This sounds small and simple, but it was transformative. Many small businesses couldn't accept credit cards before this; the process was simply too cumbersome and expensive for them. But now everything from food trucks to farmers' market stands could take a card. Business has fundamentally changed because of it.

Maybe you've swiped your card through a Square Reader and thought: That's so easy! Competitors in the payments industry saw it and thought: That's so easy to knock off! Then they tried — and often failed. "People thought the secret to Square's success was building a card reader that plugged into the headset jack," McKelvey told me, "but really it was the other 14 things in our stack."

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An "innovation stack" is a model that defines the different types of possible innovations within an organization, and a way of thinking about building new things. The idea is that innovations are stacked on top of one another, each working in tandem to support the other. (It's also the title of McKelvey's book, The Innovation Stack.) A credit card reader, for example, isn't very useful without figuring out how to lower the processing fees for small businesses (which is the reason so many entrepreneurs didn't take credit cards), or without completely new and innovative relationships with credit card companies. Square addressed all that. Square's competitors did not. "As a result," McKelvey says, "most of our potential competitors headed down a dead-end path designing hardware while the real opportunity lay elsewhere."

To McKelvey, this is a fundamental lesson that goes beyond business. It's about remembering that what you see isn't all there is. Or, to keep with the theme of my theory, you can't confuse the 99% for 100%. "The reasons things look easy is often ignorance," he told me. "Watching a master chef poach an egg makes it look easy. Only after you have a kitchen full of gelatinous slime will you appreciate how difficult the process truly is. I've watched entire companies get funded based on an assumption that something is easy that is actually difficult. Humans love to think they understand."

Given all that, I asked McKelvey how a person can identify something new and then truly maximize it. How can they get to 100% themselves?

"Doing one thing causes another problem, but often in a surprising way," he said. To illustrate his point, he reframed the stories of the scooter and waltzing that I had also shared with him: "People assume dancing is unsafe, but really it's the ballrooms. People assume the scooters are unsafe, but really it's the riders. Look for that phrase but really and you will find a competitive advantage."

Look earlier in this article and you'll see that McKelvey used that exact phrase when describing Square. Here it is again: "People thought the secret to Square's success was building a card reader that plugged into the headset jack," he said, "but really it was the other 14 things in our innovation stack."

When McKelvey meets with innovators, he loves asking them this: "Tell me something nobody else knows about your innovation stack." It's a kind of quiz. If someone has created something truly new, and understands its exact purpose in the world and how it's measurably different and better than everything else, then they will have dozens of answers to this question. "Posers spit platitudes, while real entrepreneurs know firsthand why things happen in nonobvious ways," McKelvey said.

His advice to anyone trying to answer that question, or to just find the value in new things: "Look for the but reallys," he says.

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These simple words may in fact be the difference between adapting and truly thriving. Want to get to a place where you truly, fully appreciate something new, and maximize the opportunity in changing times? Make a list of but reallys. Write down at least three of them, at which point you'll have thought so deeply about the subject that you'll probably have many more. Challenge yourself to recognize not just what this new experience is good for, or what its potential is, but what it might be missing as well.

Imagine saying to yourself: I may be dissatisfied with my job, but really I'm being pushed to better identify what I love and how to pursue it. I may need to move to a different city, but really I'm now finding a place that fulfills needs I didn't have before. I may have just taken on a terrifying new project, but really I'm learning a skill set that will be valuable later.

Once you know your but really, you can foster it. You can solve the small problems, which in turn can solve the big ones.

We must innovate inside the margins of our own lives. We are 99% there. That can be a problem, or it can be an opportunity: It means there's only 1% left to go.

→ This article is excerpted from Build for Tomorrow copyright © 2022 by Jason Feifer. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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