I just finished a two-day Creative Problem Solving workshop with a group of highly technically proficient people. The group was engaged and worked very hard not only collecting information and interviewing customers prior to and the again throughout the intense final 2 days. The team did a great job sharing their field immersion learning points, generating lots of “problems” to solve, and developing many logical “idea cards” (which define how to solve the most important problems).
Many of the idea cards were specific and addressed unique problems that the group carefully identified. Some of them were tactical, and addressed various performance shortcomings they learned about from their interviews. One of the participants came to me in the middle of the session saying “these are all good ideas, but I don’t think I see some ‘breakthrough’ innovations that could allow us to leapfrog our competition.” This was a reasonable comment. It made me think about the answer.
Not all Innovation = an iPAD
The Creative Problem Solving Process we use at Xavier Leadership Center guides people through an array of fact-finding activities that help them look at their business through an external lens. Listening to customers is pretty important, and the issues they raised, whether large or small represent things worth paying attention to. If the customer is right in their concern, then it is probably worthy of being addressed on its own merit. As a consequence, some of the ideas generated in a CPS workshop might seem overly tactical.
However, we are also trying to get ourselves to begin thinking about underlying trends or themes that lead us to root cause insights. Perhaps your sales process creates a set of false expectations that later manifested themselves in customer dissatisfaction; or there might be an installation and training solution that needs complete re-thinking.
A bit later in our workshop, the teams were asked to build a series of one year improvement initiatives based on the idea cards they generated. One broad theme was about customer service, another was related to installation, and a third theme area related to the sales process. We asked the teams to select the idea cards they felt were most impactful, and then create a one year action plan. By this time, we had as a group discussed the topic of game changing ideas compared with others that simply allow you to achieve parity. After a while, one of the participants came to me and remarked “you know . . . when I first looked at each of the idea cards by themselves, I didn’t think we were looking at breakthroughs. But when you start to combine several of them together, it is a completely different story!”
Isn’t that often the case? In fact the entire notion of continuous improvement is about creating momentum though a series of ongoing small innovations with a similar trajectory. This too can produce sustainable competitive advantage, especially if you can learn to maintain a fast pace to your innovation agenda. Also, taking many small steps has less risk. This is related to what Jim Collins called the hedgehog concept and the flywheel effect in his book, Good to Great.
Ask Better Questions
Sure building momentum is a powerful competitive approach to consider, but does it lead to a revolutionary idea? Perhaps not. That requires a change in perspective lead from asking better questions.
Most of us own a DVR at home, right? So why is it we have one? Is it because we have a burning desire to record programs? Or, does this product meet a much deeper need, like helping us gain greater control over our already too hectic lives?
If you are the engineering team at the DVR manufacturing company, your product planning probably focuses on what it takes to make a better DVR. How much memory should it have? How many buttons should there be? What color should the display panel be? And so forth. However, when your focus is too narrow, what you are likely to end up with – at best – is a marginally better DVR.
Alternatively, if you asked the deeper question “what other things would people like to have more control over in their lives – that we might be able to provide?” you open the door to many other possibilities. You might develop a computer device that didn’t store anything, but controlled other aspects of a consumer’s life. You might even consider a service rather than a product. Choosing which problem you are trying to solve is HUGE.
The Creative Problem Solving process guided participants to ask many more questions than they might n normally (typically 200-300 or more in a session) in search of new problems to solve. The game changer problems are probably not the obvious ones you normally talk about.
Gluing Car Doors Together?
My company was in the welding business serving the auto industry. Welding was and is a challenging process. You press two pieces of steel between a pair of electrodes, apply pressure and pass a controlled current through them to melt and forge the steel together. The process variables are many (steel dimensional variations, the electrodes wear and get thicker with each weld, power line voltages change, die oils sometimes coat the steel, and so forth). Maintaining quality as all these things change is sometimes a nightmare. Everyone in the industry focused their engineers and scientists into understanding and controlling the physics of a 5-7 mm in diameter weld spot. The question they asked was “How do we make a better welding system?”
Our solution ultimately was to replace the welds completely, using instead, pumped structural ADHESIVES which were cured using an electromagnetic field. What we developed was stronger, provided less car body panel vibration, resisted corrosion better, required less maintenance, and was cheaper. This innovation for us was responsible for a 10X growth in sales revenues over about 5-6 years.
The point I am trying to make is that as long as we saw the “problem” as designing a better welding system, all we would ever create was better welders. The capacity to see this as NOT a welding problem was the first step in imagining the idea of gluing car parts together.
If you are looking for breakthrough innovation, ask more and better questions, and then look for new problems to solve.
The group I was working with this week discussed many technical features and benefits of their current product offering. Many of them seemed to define the theme “How might we simplify the lives of our customers with the technologies and services we can provide?
That is a pretty good question.
Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Wayne Fisher, Xavier Leadership Center