Innovation is Not Problem Solving
The most effective innovators don’t wait for problems to arise. They fix what isn’t broken and seek to improve on things that have no apparent deficit.
When I speak about the behaviors and choices that drive innovation, I mention things like preferring imagination to knowledge, choosing to explore rather than apply. I often get pushback from those who argue that we should do what we already know how to do, then shift to other strategies only when that fails to work for us. It sounds so practical and business like, and it’s how most of us operate. I agree that it’s good business to have such processes to follow, but it’s only the most minimal incremental form of innovation.
Years ago, I was Communications Director for a state agency with a wide ranging mission. In that role, I proposed that we create an online system to enhance internal coordination and communications among the many diverse people who served as media spokespersons. As I attempted to get it implemented, I was challenged by colleagues who asked, “What problem are we solving?” Or, to state it more bluntly: Why should I devote any time and resources to fixing a problem that doesn’t exist? I successfully brought changes during my tenure but that online system never became one of them. I couldn’t persuade folks that it was really needed.
Business is about solving problems. Getting an education and developing professional expertise is about learning how to solve problems. If you have a job, it means your presence solves some problem that business would have if you weren’t there. The ability to solve problems is certainly a high value skill, and the more difficult the problems you can solve the more value you provide. But innovation is about much more.
Innovation is about providing products and services and capabilities people don’t even realize they lack. If you think about it, the major innovations we could all list were almost never created to solve a problem for us. They were created to improve the way we live. That includes the automobile, the airplane, the light bulb, the personal computer, the internet, the mobile phone, WiFi. It includes products and technologies as diverse as ATM machines, CDs, jet engines, Post-It Notes and iPads. None of those products addressed any widely recognized problem that any of us had.
Rather than being solutions to problems, these innovations are things that have enhanced our lives, enhancements so dramatic that we would now consider it a problem to be without them. Few of us would want to try to live without computers and cell phones and cars, but until someone dreamed them up—and figured out how to make them real—we didn’t miss them. In a very real sense necessity isn’t the mother of invention, it is its offspring.
Innovators do need to solve problems, often many complex problems, in order to create these breakthroughs. But if they waited for some problem to be recognized before pursuing their ideas, they might still be waiting. Henry Ford famously said that if he’d asked consumers what they wanted (i.e. what problem needed solving) they would have told him a faster horse. Many skeptics questioned the need for personal computers. The whole history of the internet is about one new idea after another that sprung up in the mind of a Larry Page and a Serge Brin a Jeff Bezos, or a Mark Zukerberg. Exactly what problem did Facebook solve? Yet look at its value today! Ironically, one of the biggest perceived “problems” of the early internet, and something that faced fierce resistance, was the attempt by some to use it for commercial purposes.
Innovators are those who don’t have time to wait for problems to arise. They’re the dreamers who as George Bernard Shaw put it, do not see things as they are, “…and say, ‘Why?’, but…dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’.” Innovators don’t follow the problem-solution cycle; they get out in front of it. In every example I’ve given, the innovator didn’t wait to be confronted with a problem to solve.
Problem solving is essential to innovation, just as it is to business. But if your approach to innovation is to first identify problems, and you’re dismissing ideas that don’t meet that limited criterion, innovation will be slow at best. You need to imagine possibilities beyond those tight parameters or you’ll soon find that you’re falling far behind those who do.
Innovators are dreamers, not just problem solvers.
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Dennis Stauffer is the award winning author of Thinking Clockwise, A Field Guide for the Innovative Leader and the Innovator Mindset blog. He’s the founder of Insight Fusion, working with individuals, teams and organizations to boost their capacity to innovate.
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