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A key to innovation: Love the problem, not the solution

By Oliver Narraway | November 10, 2021

Innovation often starts by simply identifying problems.
Work Transformation

Conventional wisdom is that innovation is something that clever, creative people do somewhat magically. But a sustainable flow of innovative ideas often starts simply by identifying and analyzing problems.

Use problems as an opportunity to make innovation inclusive

Problems are more or less concrete. Unlike solutions, problems already exist. Everyone identifies problems – every day. Focusing on problems within your innovation program is a great way to give an outlet to employee frustrations. Many watercooler conversations (remember those?) revolve around things that are not working and could be improved.

An open, structured mechanism whereby employees can (constructively) air problems gives a voice to employees that can also power a pipeline of new solutions to address them. You don’t need to come up with the solution to be a powerful part of the innovation process. You can go a step further and gather a diverse group of employees together specifically to discuss problems that should be solved.

Take time to really understand the problem

One of the most common innovation quotes you hear (attributed to Henry Ford) is, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It’s often used as a rationale to support solution-led innovation. However, there are some problems with this:

  • There is no evidence Henry Ford ever said that! After all, the “horseless carriage” was invented a number of years earlier by Karl Benz.
  • If whoever did say that had instead asked horse users about their experiences and frustrations with horses, they may well have identified a set of real problems to solve. At the time the horseless carriage was invented, it was well-understood that horses were expensive to keep, lacked durability, were dangerous and could not go long distances. Speed was not the primary issue at that time.

Customer (or user) research is key to identifying and understanding problems and their roots. Use design thinking tools such as stakeholder maps, empathy maps and journey maps to identify who to talk to, what to ask and document findings effectively. When the problem is understood, then you are ready to develop potential solutions.

Don’t stop learning about the problem

Throughout solution design and commercialization, you will continue to learn about the problem you are addressing. Each learning about the problem is an opportunity to inform your solution design and go-to-market strategy. You may find that the group suffering the problem (i.e., your user group) is larger than previously thought, or you may find that there are groups of users with slightly different problems to address.

When you have a solution, create a list of assumptions related to the problem. What do you believe to be true about the problem? Test these assumptions alongside your solution. This will help ensure that your solution would indeed solve the problem. Consider how user groups or other user research techniques could be used to understand user problems and steer your solution and commercialization.

Reorient your innovation program toward problems with a few simple steps:

  • Identify which of your stakeholders will best understand the problems you should be solving (e.g., customers, colleagues, partners). Ensure you have a clear means to engage them and connect these problems to your innovation process.
  • Include problem exploration and identification as a distinct phase within innovation challenges.
  • When you’re brainstorming ideas, discuss problems first. Don’t start brainstorming solutions without a clearly defined problem to solve.
  • Create a prioritized list of the assumptions you have made in designing a solution. Ensure your problem-related assumptions at the top and test these first.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
—Albert Einstein

By starting with problems (large or small) rather than solutions, you are tackling one of the most foundational considerations of successful innovation – that it is needed.


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