problem solving

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?


So, Now that I’ve found the trouble…

I recently posted about the trouble seeking process (The Virtues of Looking for Trouble). So, I’ve been asked the question – what do you do with trouble when you find it. Well, in short, the goal is to minimize risk, and maximize opportunity.

How. Well – first, as I said before, its imperative that you alwas have your ears open for trouble, and make it a regular activity to discuss it with the team, and management (get them used to it – it will pay off in the long run!)

1. Keep blame out of it.

Even if someone really screwed up, there’s time to deal with that later. Blame will not help solve the problem, and blame will make it much, much, much harder to discuss problems productively. No one will bring up bad news if they fear they’re going to get slammed. Most of the time, assuming that you have a good team, the blame will be that we work fast, blazing paths through the unknown – we’re paid to innovate – that means we just don’t always know in advance how things will play out. So – respect and trust. (And if you do have a bad egg – deal with that quietly, and make sure its about skills, talent, match, etc and not about “this went wrong and its your fault”. But that’s a different subject)

So back to dealing.

2. How bad is it?

Is there general agreement that if this problem is not managed, the launch, the schedule, the user adoption, the business model or other critical success metric is in clear peril? If so, all due attention should be These should be at the top of the agenda, and made as visible within the organization as possible to get to the best possible solution.

3. Verify and characterize the problem.

Once the problem is on the table – get general input on it, then make it someone’s responsibility to map out the size and shape of the problem. Is it a lack of information? Is it a technology glitch? A new competitor? A design flaw? A resource issue? What are the ramifications? Best, worst case scenarios? Is there a critical decision point, or is this something we can just watch.

5. Identify key decision factors: (ie if this outside event does not occur by this date, then we’ll… ), if this metric hits this mark, then…, if this study returns this result, then….. If the blah blah group (or partner, or whatever) can’t deliver x, by y, then…

4. Decide on a course of action: Solve, remediate or watch.

Some problems can’t be solved, but you can keep them from making fools of you just by tracking them, and responding when and how you can – is it positioning, PR, expectations setting on the schedule, feature-rejuggering, getting new partners, etc. A team that can sit down and really hash out problems will get to the “aha” moments much faster. A team that is looking for, and dealing with trouble effectively is going to make it to the goal line faster, and score bigger.

Moreover, many problems, found and managed early, will make your project, product or campaign much much better than you might imagined. Stay tuned for “How canceling a project won over our users”.