42: Why innovation is a hard sell.

This is an argument about semantics. But semantics can be decisively important.

I build and market tools that enable companies to make better use of the intelligence, insight, experience and output of their workforce. I do this because this is nearly all I ever think about (excepting chocolate, coffee and my kids).

Many people I work with, and in the industry, wish to market these collaborative tools by suggesting that they drive or improve the process or outcome of innovation. I always hesitate to adopt this as our positioning.

Here’s why. “Innovation” is a vague and misunderstood term. Most executives pay lip-service to wanting to be innovative. They don’t mean it, and you can’t sell it to them. Its not that these guys (women too) are stodgy or against “innovation”, its just that they don’t really believe in it (because we don’t really know what “it” is – and something is generally labeled as innovative after the fact – not up front). You can’t depend on “innovation” because you can’t predict it. You can’t create business plans that depend on “a great miracle happens here”. See that? I just equated innovation to a miracle. And I think that’s how many organizations see innovation – as a miracle to be prayed for. And most organizations are non-believers.

There are a number of “innovation management” and “idea management” products and methodologies out there. Some are superbly good at it. Many now invite the public into “collaborative” forums for business brainstorming. They collect, manage, rate, evaluate. Some have been brilliantly successful – like at Starbucks or Dell. How much has this type of innovation moved the bottom line for these companies? I don’t know, but not that much, I think. Currently, these initiatives likely pay off more in good will and customer insight than they do in direct business results (a plenty good enough reason to use them). NASA and DARPA have both crowdsourced remarkable solutions to remarkable problems. Of course crowdsourcing is another subject, and shouldn’t be confused with ideation or innovation – (though ideation is a valid use case for crowdsourcing).

You’ll notice that I’ve put quotation marks around “innovation” throughout. That’s because I believe that this word has been misunderstood and poorly defined in society. So I’m going to use some other terms. The most important one is problem solving.

Every enterprise has problems to solve – you’re trying to solve a problem for your market – that’s why they give you money. You have the problem of figuring out what that problem is, who has it, and how best to solve it. You have organizational problems – how do we structure the organization so that its most effective? (What does most effective mean?). What kind of infrastructure do we need and how do we build it? You have product design problems – how do we create a solution in a timely, cost effective manner that meets a users needs? How do we distribute it? How much should we charge? Who should pay? How do we anticipate market changes? How do we compete?

What I’m saying here is that even if you can’t take the seemingly dramatic leap of faith that “innovation” would appear to require, you undoubtedly need to solve problems of all kinds.

So I am driving the focus to Solving Problems. How do you help solve problems? In the past, the best method was divide and conquer – and in fact most organizational structures are designed to support that. But problems are getting harder, more complex, less divisible. So how do you solve irreducible problems?

First, you get rid of the distractions – by enabling effective communications, shared workspaces, and eliminating geographical and time-zone inconveniences. OK – that’s the (relatively) easy stuff. Now to the hard part.

I will argue that there are 3 core challenges that make problem solving hard. It is these areas where we must focus if we are to truly take advantage of all this new technology and methodology, techniques and so forth. I’ve based this on wide reading, interviewing and experience, and I’m building a bibliography (which I’d welcome your contributions to). but for now – please accept this as the raw thinking it is.

Number 1
42: Anybody here that hasn’t read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

My point of course is that the hard thing is framing and articulating the problem – what is the goal?

The hardest part of solving the most difficult problems is asking the right question. And getting a wide variety of people to agree on that isn’t the easiest thing either. This is the difference between what is often labeled “innovation” – that is ideation and brainstorming – versus directed problem solving. The goal isn’t to come up with a million ideas and pick one, the idea is to ask a very specific question, and come up with a million possible solutions, evaluate them and, the most important thing – execute and implement. This confusion of innovation and ideation is not helpful. Innovation isn’t about ideas, innovation is about using ideas. Oh right – we’re not innovating – we’re problem solving.

Number 2
Aligning Stakeholders
This, in fact is a key part of Number 1 – that is if you have 2 dozen people involved, you might have 3 dozen or more world views and perspectives on the problem. Creating a shared understanding of the problem, or a “Common Operating Picture”, as the say in the military, is critical to aligning, and leveraging the various stakeholders.

There are methodologies, tools (don’t get me started on mindmaps – I find them useful for brainstorming, but not much else most people disagree with me on this, so you’re in good company).

But most people agree that having a visualization of the problem in some form (preferably digital, interactive and evolving) is central to understanding, aligning and solving the problem.

Number 3:
Once the problem has been framed, and stakeholders aligned (not necessarily in that order) the solving part of problem solving begins.

– Come up with potential solutions – through research (what do we have internally, what is out there in the world?), ideation, brainstorming, and great debates.
– Develop a plan – the plan should become part of the common operating picture, keeping stakeholders aligned, and making it vastly easier to identify roadblocks, new challenges and assumptions that proved false.
– Execute – and likely many of the execution steps must reflect a similar process (recursive problem solving, recursive leadership…).
– Gauge progress
– Identify barriers, problems and new information
– Spiral toward solution.

In other words, if we want to assist organizations and society as a whole in solving hard problems, the answer isn’t innovation, social media, crowdsourcing, networking or whatever – though those can be invaluable tools along the way. What we need to do is eliminate barriers and facilitate the divergent and convergent thinking required to get the job done. For more on this, I strongly recommend Nancy Dixon‘s scholarly, yet readable discussion of problem solving, and her excellent list of resources.

In summing up. I think innovation is a hard sell, because people don’t know what it means, and feel its not something you can take to the bank. Problem solving, however is what we each face day to day. Its what we excel at – and what we want to be doing is facilitating that process. In trying to sell you innovation, I’m selling you a dream, in selling you Problem Solving, I’m addressing a real need.

Agree? No?


  1. This is an excellent post. I appreciate the distinction between innovation and problem solving. In its most basic sense, innovation is simply creating new stuff, whether or not it’s useful, suitable, or even wanted.

    The way that you describe innovation reminds me of a post I wrote a few months ago where I posted my thoughts on what business people mean when they say being “creative”. They really aren’t talking about the process of dreaming up new ideas. Instead they are talking about frugality or working within extreme constraints. Constraints can stimulate creativity, no doubt about it, but I really think that it’s more about trying to get something for nothing while your money and attention are focused elsewhere.

    I love the Douglas Adams reference and I agree whole-heartedly that finding the proper question (aka root cause) is critical.

    1. you raise a very interesting idea here, but i think that innovation describes a cluster of things – its not chasm-able, cause you can’t buy or adopt “innovation”. perhaps its not innovation thats in the chasm, but new approaches to problems, organizations, and working together. our job is to advance our understanding of the problems and the new approaches to make the value and the path crystal clear.

  2. I agree for the most part and am experiencing this myself. Where I wonder is where “innovation” helps you solve problems that you didn’t know you had.

    1. Linda – We met at the Potomac forum a year or so ago – not sure if you recall. You’re certainly right – there’s a role for real innovation beautiful brainstorms that solve undetected problems and create unimagined great new things. However – few CEOs are ready to invest much in programs or software to support that, because they see it as a very long shot. So – its not the best argument for why they should try new approaches like social collaboration. Yes, they may get some awesome innovation, but they will certainly improve productivity, have the chance to better align thinking throughout the organization, and have the opportunity to instantly marshall the right people for a specific challenge.

    2. and did I mention what an honor it is to have you comment here :-). I was thoroughly impressed by the talk you gave and the open-minded, confident, but nothing-like-arrogant approach you take.

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