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Innovation and Problem-Solving

December 13, 2021


We’ve all heard the old proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The television show McGyver was built around that premise. The proverb has been a truism for over two millennia. Nicole Lotz, a Senior Lecturer in Design at the Open University, explains, “In the Socratic dialogue ‘Republic’, Plato famously wrote: ‘our need will be the real creator’ which was molded over time into the English proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’.”[1] She goes on to note, “History suggests that the greatest drivers for inventions and innovations were in times of war, famine, pandemic, and death.” That may be true; however, businesses need to innovate constantly — not just in perilous times. Journalist John Crawford observes, “Sometimes, ‘innovation’ can seem like an empty word, a term for business folks to throw around to make themselves seem forward thinking. … But companies ignore innovation at their peril.”[2]


One way a company can ensure it will continue to innovate is to look for problems that need solving. The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen described the problem-solving approach as the Theory of Jobs to be Done. One of Christensen’s last books was entitled Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, coauthored by Karen Dillon (@KarDillon), Taddy Hall (@taddyhall), and David S. Duncan. In the book, they discuss the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. According the book’s introduction, that theory helps companies understand their “customers’ struggle for progress and then [creates] the right solution and attendant set of experiences to ensure [they] solve [their] customers’ jobs well, every time.” They add, “This is a book about progress. Yes, it’s a book about innovation — and how to get better at it. But at is core, this book is about the struggles we all face to make progress in our lives.”


Innovation and Problem-Solving


Adnan Sarkar (@adu9922), founder of Dr. Bubble, asserts, “A business is the result of immense hard work, dedication and perseverance. However, it is not enough to simply have these and then let complacency creep in. The key to any successful business is the ability to come up with fresh new ideas to keep the operation running and the products and services fresh. This influx of fresh ideas into the business on a regular basis is known as innovation. Innovation plays a very important role in any business venture.”[4] One way to ensure complacency doesn’t creep in is providing employees with a continuous list of interesting problems to be solved.


Business executives Charles Conn and Robert McLean, authors of Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, insist, “Even the most inscrutable problems have solutions — or better outcomes than have been reached so far.”[3] Identifying problems to be solved (or jobs to be done) gives people something tangible to work towards. It gives them real purpose, regardless of whether the problem is a small one or a global one. Journalists at FastCo Works agree that innovation is more likely to occur when it is connected to a larger purpose.[4]


According to Naresh Shanker (@NareshShanker), Chief Technology Officer at Xerox, the reason that problem-solving innovations keep people engaged is simple — impact. He explains, “While many companies focus on developing flashy, new technologies, too many of them are missing what lies at the heart of innovation: impact. Not just impact for the respective firm or their stakeholders, but impact for the world. True game-changing innovations help solve some of the largest problems affecting business, society and the planet.”[6] He adds, “To deliver this impact on both a societal and business level, companies need to move away from an unconstrained innovation model and instead develop an innovation framework that focuses on advancing technologies that solve specific customer pain points through a structured innovation process.”


Problem-Solving Techniques


Once a problem has been identified, there are numerous techniques you can use to address those problems. Below are some of those suggestions:


1. Avoid the “not invented here” trap. The FastCo Works staff notes, “Innovation can come from anywhere.” Look for ways similar problems have been solved creatively by others. Don’t be afraid to find partners that can help solve the problem.


2. Avoid bad solutions. No one sets out to find a bad solution. Nevertheless, the staff at Untools writes, “If you’re working on a high-stakes problem, you might want to focus on specifically avoiding bad solutions. Inversion is a tool to make you see the problem from a different angle and avoid possible mistakes or bad outcomes.”[7]


3. Be ever-curious. Conn and McLean suggest, “When you face radical uncertainty, … relentlessly ask, ‘Why is this so?’ Unfortunately, somewhere between preschool and the boardroom, we tend to stop asking.” The Untools staff recommends breaking down a complex problem into smaller problems. They write, “It often helps to break big and complex problems into smaller, more manageable ones. Issue trees allow you to do this in a systematic way. It’s great to tackle the problem in a ‘divide and conquer fashion’. Then there are first principles which focus on identifying the fundamental principles underlying a given problem. You can then build an original solution from these principles rather than from the initial problem statement.”


4. Tolerate ambiguity — and stay humble! Conn and McLean note, “The real world is highly uncertain. Reality unfolds as the complex product of stochastic events and human reactions. … We have to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. Unfortunately, we have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians. Guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong.” Cognitive computing can help. The now defunct Cognitive Computing Consortium explained, “Cognitive computing makes a new class of problems computable. It addresses complex situations that are characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty; in other words, it handles human kinds of problems.” Staying humble keeps you open to new possibilities and learning new things.


5. Frame the problem differently. Sometimes the problem you think you’re facing isn’t the real problem. The Untools staff explains, “Abstraction laddering will help you find alternative and innovative solutions by defining the right problem (of which your initial problem might only be a subset of).” Another way of looking at the problem differently is to assemble a team of experts from diverse fields and backgrounds. Sometimes a different perspective is all that is required to set you on the right path. Conn and McLean call this taking the dragonfly-eye view. They explain, “Dragonfly-eye perception is common to great problem solvers. Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Although we don’t know exactly how their insect brains process all this visual information, by analogy they see multiple perspectives not available to humans. … Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar tropes into which our pattern-recognizing brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify threats or opportunities beyond the periphery of vision.”


Concluding Thoughts


The late Buckminster Fuller once stated, “The one common experience of all humanity is the challenge of problems.” There is a satisfaction that comes with solving a problem that is difficult to achieve any other way. I tend to agree with British author Brian Aldiss, who stated, “Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.”


[1] Nicole Lotz, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Design@Open, 26 October 2020.
[2] John Crawford, “To Survive, Companies Learn How to Innovate,” Babson Thought & Action, 23 January 2020.
[3] Charles Conn and Robert McLean, “Six problem-solving mindsets for very uncertain times,” McKinsey Quarterly, 15 September 2020.
[4] Adnan Sarkar, “Here’s Why Innovation is the Key to Success of Any Business,” Entrepreneur, 2 September 2018.
[5] FastCo Works, “Connecting innovation to purpose,” Fast Company, 18 November 2020.
[6] Naresh Shanker, “Impactful Innovation Needs To Focus On The Why, Not The How,” Forbes, 17 August 2021.
[7] Staff, “How to choose the right thinking tool,” Untools.

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