How Serial Innovators Find The Best Problems To Solve

It takes as much time to solve a bad problem as it does a good problem. And if you’re not working on good problems, you’re really wasting your time.

Serial innovators are not looking for opportunities. They look for concrete problems that cause potential customers significant pain—problems with solutions for which customers would be willing to pay. Serial innovators know they have an interesting problem when it meets three criteria:

  • Solving the problem has the potential for significant financial impact.
  • A solution likely can be found.
  • The problem and its solution are acceptable to both customers and management (it solves problems and fits strategy).

Serial Innovators follow Thomas Edison’s advice regarding innovating: "I don’t want to invent something that no one will buy." They understand that technology is just a means to an end, the firm is in business to make money, and the only way they will be allowed to continue innovating is to develop a product that profitably solves customer problems.

4 methods for finding the right problem

  1. Using Strategy to Identify Problems: Sometimes serial Innovators, like inventors, start investigating a problem area because the performance capabilities of a particular technology have reached a plateau, while performance demands keep increasing. To move to the next performance level requires shifting to a different technology.

  2. Reframe Existing Problems: Serial Innovators have an uncanny ability to reframe existing problems. By immersing themselves in a problem, they see it through a different lens that allows them to capture aspects that had been previously overlooked.

  3. Work Backward from a Far-in-the-Future Vision: Serial Innovators may work backward from a long-term goal to discover how tackling a series of short-term problems might allow them to ultimately produce, many decades later, that long-term vision. They would begin by developing a salable product based on the first technology step, providing a pathway of interesting (i.e., profit-producing) shorter-term problems to solve on the way toward their long-term end point.

  4. Use Other Domains for Insight: Serial Innovators find the right problem by gathering insight from across multiple domains. Fred, a Serial Innovator in medical devices, routinely tracked university patent applications in his search for interesting problems. He initiated conversations with university Inventors to determine what they were doing and, more important, why. The "why" gave him insight into what problems these university Inventors thought were important. He also routinely visited university new venture incubators, investigating why they were trying to commercialize the various technologies—what problems were they trying to solve? When he found multiple academic researchers patenting and trying to commercialize different products to solve similar problems, he knew he was on track to finding an interesting problem to solve for the firm.

When a problem that has significant financial impact, a findable solution, a fit with the customer and the management, serial innovators shift from finding to understanding.

How to understand the problem deeply

First, prepare to understand:

In preparing to understand, serial innovators do not rely solely on themselves to define the problem and its unknowns. Part of their preparation includes assembling the people they need from the various domains that will help them completely understand the problem. Most frequently, they create a "team" of people in their network not formally assigned to the project, who they tap—sometimes individually, sometimes in groups—to help clarify various aspects of the problem. Then, with the help of their "team," serial innovators define what they need to know.

Some serial innovators use the technique of asking the "why" question five times, "peeling the onion" to understand root causes. Another serial innovator puts together a "learning plan," a simple document or presentation in which he and his team agree to and write down what they know as well as what they do not know about the problem, the project, and its objectives. Serial innovators believe there is more power in understanding what they do not know than what they already do, so they tend to focus on the "what don’t we know."

Once they have defined the initial unknowns and assembled the resources necessary to eliminate them, they start the work of gathering and synthesizing information to eliminate the unknowns.

Second, think holistically: 

Serial Innovators gather information from a number of perspectives and then integrate across those multiple domains to understand completely. They speak of thinking holistically to "connect the dots," the specific pieces of information associated with understanding the problem. But, in order to connect them, they first must "find the dots." The task at hand is all about discovery. In their form of discovering, the real challenge is to view the problem from multiple perspectives, or domains. They think from the technical, customer, market, and competitive perspectives, melding information from each into an overall, holistic understanding of the problem and the various contexts in which it resides. Problems are viewed as more than technical or engineering challenges—they are multifaceted systems.

Innovators seek technical understanding but also recognize the importance of customer and end-consumer derived information in developing their understanding of a problem. At this point, the Serial Innovator is not trying to market a product—just trying to understand the problem from the customer’s perspective. Serial innovators perform their own market research instead of letting a separate division or outside firm conduct research for them. They need richness in the data, and they need to understand it personally. They cannot let other people interpret raw data for them.

In addition to technical and customer perspectives, serial innovators have a keen awareness of their competitor’s capabilities. Serial innovators understand how technology—both theirs and their competitors’—fits into the market. They understand the trade-offs between the two, and are able to find the right balance between their technology and the demands of the market. They then use the insight they acquire by intensely studying their customers to give them an advantage over the products their competitors have engineered.

During this "dot-finding" process, serial innovators focus primarily on understanding individual customer needs and technical possibilities and on maintaining a sense of what competitors are doing. However, they occasionally circle back into considering the general market trends to ensure that there still is a market for the problem they are trying to solve—and that someone else has not already commercialized a product to solve that problem. During this part of the process, serial innovators look at individual customers to understand specific needs. To understand market opportunities, on the other hand, they look at the market in aggregate.

As serial innovators refine their understanding of the problem from each perspective, they redefine their objectives and enhance their support network. Then, when they have gathered sufficient information across all relevant dimensions, serial innovators make connections across these disparate types of information that others just do not see. Their special capability to synthesize information allows them to reach the desired "Aha!" moment needed to solve the problem. We’ve labeled this capability "discernment"—keen insight into seeing the solution of a profoundly complex problem with a multitude of constraints.

When we have asked serial innovators about this capability, they typically shrug their shoulders; "I’ve been told it’s a gift," is one reply. They don’t know how they do it either. We tentatively conclude that they have gathered enough breadth and depth of knowledge through their multifaceted investigation of each problem that they can make an experience-based intuitive leap. This leap is possible in part because of their capabilities, and in part because management has granted them enough time and sufficient resources to truly understand the problem at hand.

Excerpted from Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create And Deliver Breakthrough Innovations In Mature Firms by Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price and Bruce Vojak. (c) 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, reprinted by permission of the publisher, www.sup.org. No further reproduction or distribution is allowed without the prior permission of the publisher.

[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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4 Comments

  • Gerald Nadler

    A good "flag waving" article. However, it does not provide usable details about HOW to select people, frame the
    problem, develop a future solution, increase significantly the
    likelihood of implementation,  etc. Such details are available in books I've coauthored - "Breakthrough Thinking" and "Smart Questions".

  • Brett W. Gould

    Abbie, Raymond, and Bruce.  Love it, love it, love it.  Thank you for taking the time to share this on FastCompany.  Spot on!

    Brett W. Gould
    www.BrettWGould.com
    @BrettWGould:twitter 

  • Earl Cole

    This is a great article with keen perspective.  As I read through it, I was like... hey, is that me?  I laughed.  Some people call it "crazy" some people call it "serial innovation".  Either way, I'm all in!

  • Bob Jacobson

    One of the best short articles ever to grace these pages.  Absolutely right on, on every account.  Thank you, Abbie, Raymond, and Bruce.  Don't ever stop teaching these vital lessons for innovative success.