Innovation starts with problems, not with ideas.

We often think of innovation as starting with an idea nobody has had before. More often it starts with a problem or opportunity nobody has noticed before. 

3D Problem Solving
3D problem solving, by Chris Potter, on Flickr

You want to become an innovative organisation?  If so, it is tempting to focus on the ideation process, and to create an innovation funnel to filter out ideas (even though this really doesn’t work well at all).

However you may be starting at the wrong end.

In his blog “The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve“, Greg Satell states that

 “every innovation strategy fails eventually, because innovation is, at its core, about solving problems — and there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve. There is no one “true” path to innovation.”

The path to innovation is to find new problems and new opportunities which will really help the organisation.  And so long as it is really relevant to the business, the more difficult, scary, or audacious the problem the better. You cannot get people to step outside the box if you give them a problem they can solve inside the box. Or you find what Mukesh Gupta calls the “invisible problems” – the ones that nobody has noticed.

Once you have selected the correct problem, there is a crucial intermediary step, which is to fully explore the problem.

  • You can see this in the deep dive process shown in this video – where the team has 3 days to innovate and spends the first whole day exploring the problem. 
  • You can see this in the after action review process (often a trigger for incremental innovation), where the questioning process includes identifying the things that did not go to plan  and performing a root cause analysis of these problem areas before suggesting solutions.
  • You can see this in this blog post from Anita Campbell, who describes a structured process for creating a Problem Definition, after which innovation can begin. 
Only once you have started with a problem or an opportunity which you have fully explored, understanding the constraints and the complexities, can you start to create, combine and remix existing ideas to solve these problems.

You want to be innovative? Start with finding a new problem

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