Tag Archives: Breakthrough Thinking

Looking for the Breakthrough Innovation

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.

Building Momentum

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.

Other resources

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Wayne Fisher, Xavier Leadership Center


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Destroying Paradigms to Unlock Breakthrough Thinking

 “Innovation: A difference that makes a difference:  imagining, realizing and spreading a new way of understanding, seeing or making things.” — Dr. Carol Strohecker

What is the biggest impediment to achieving breakthrough thinking and innovation?   I believe it is our own mental roadblocks erected around the things we already “know.”   Most of us know a lot about our business–the industry, customer behaviors, competitor strengths and weaknesses, stakeholder values and so forth.  Most of us think of ourselves as “experts” in fact.

The problem is that our knowledge (and associated ways of thinking about things) comes from our accumulated life experiences.   By definition, these are backward looking.   And while our biases and beliefs may have been formed thoughtfully, they don’t always hold in highly dynamic world.  (If the future is different enough from the past, then historical ideas and solutions may not be useful.)

  • There was a time when I would have “believed” that $0.75 was a lot to pay for a cup of coffee.  For quite some time, that was a valid conclusion . . . that is until Howard Schultz took a vacation in Italy and saw how a coffeehouse could be a social experience, and took the opportunity to purchase Starbucks in 1987 from its original high-end coffee purveyors.
  • There  was a time when many of us believed that a restaurant was a place where you sat down and people served you.  That is until Ray Kroc walked into the “McDonald’s Famous Barbecue” place in San Bernardino California and saw a fast-food revolution.
  • There was a time when we believed that our world would revolve around laptop computing, before IBM combined telephony and computing in their first PDA device introduced at the 1992 COMDEX show.  (This ultimately became the “Simon Personal Communicator” marketed by Bell South in 1994 – see photo.)

Howard Schultz initially had great difficulty attracting investors to fund his growth plans.  After all, most people KNEW that the business model would not work – based on their beliefs about how people felt about buying coffee.  (Would you have invested your money on such a bold new concept . . . $2 for a cup of coffee, even more if it had foam on it?)

Yes sir. Once we form opinions about things, they are hard to break for most of us. Our tendency to cling to our deeply held views about the world often blocks us from the kind of breakthrough thinking we would like to see more of in our organizations.

Some people do this naturally

For a small fraction of us, this is not so much of an issue.  I’m not sure if Steve Jobs is a case in point, but I believe that some of us are born with a sense of deep restlessness and continual questioning of things.  Have you ever had the experience of getting lost in a continual loop of conversation with a precocious five-year old that couldn’t stop asking WHY? These are the kids who always got in trouble at school, were a teacher’s worst nightmare, who were always balancing between being inquisitive and a “smart aleck.”  (Perhaps many of us were born this way, but had it driven out of us as we progressed through our early school years.)

In any case, most of us as adults do not have this natural tendency to be able to see things as if for the first time – free from our preconceived notions.

Breaking the Paradigms

Most of us need help to break these paradigms.  Here are four ideas to help you break out of established (and limiting) patterns of thought.

1)      Educate your team about the power of paradigms.   Give your team an intellectual understanding of what paradigms are, how our minds form belief systems, how these are both useful to us, and also what the downsides are.   This step on its own will not change anything, but it is one step in modifying behavior – modifying someone’s understanding and knowledge.

2)     Put them in an environment where questioning is the norm.   We all adapt our behaviors into our environment.  We understand the culture around us, and act accordingly.   If in your organizational culture, questioning of assumptions and the status quo is not a normal behavior, then people will not naturally go there.   For this reason bringing people into a new physical space with a skilled facilitator can help.   In an external environment, a temporary set of behavior norms can be established (as in a workshop or seminar).  People are generally willing to adapt to any established rules set by the facilitator (because they are not being asked to make a permanent change).

3)     Use immersion learning to create a new context.  Getting your team members into a new environment can help them to see things through a different lens. Examples of this would be to have them interview customers, stakeholders, do a field trip, or conduct customer observations.  With a little coaching and some help (like providing a structured interview guide along with some coaching on empathetic listening), your people will likely gain new insights about all sorts of things when they can make someone else the focus of attention.

4)     Challenge them with powerful questions.   One way to stimulate creative ideation is to ask unexpected questions that beg a new pattern of thinking.    Here is an example of what I mean, taken from a health care client learning event recently conducted by Xavier Leadership Center. In this case we were trying to get the audience to consider different strategic ideas related to their industry and health system.   Here are some of these powerful questions:

What are the rules and assumptions my industry operates under? What if the opposite were true?

  • What will my patient pool look like five years from now?  Ten years?  How will they be different from today? What will that mean for care we will need to provide?  How will we need to prepare for these differences?
  • What if our goal was to cut hospital admissions and procedures by 50 percent, what would we do differently?  (This is interesting because today’s hospital reimbursements are based on the NUMBER of procedures performed).
  • What if hospitals didn’t exist, what would we invent from scratch to serve health and wellness needs of our society?
  • If we could allocate 50 percent of what we do on prevention and wellness?  What would we do as a health system?   What would we want the outcome to be?

Such questions can be hugely powerful if they were not ones your team had previously thought about.   Being caught “off guard” can be intellectually stimulating.

What powerful questions can you think of relevant to your business?  Use them during your next strategy planning session.

Other Resources

My Challenging Life: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

Center for Design Innovation – Interview with Dr. Carol Strohecker, by Deanna Leonard, Innovation Excellence

The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

What is it like to see something “as if” for the first time?, Namukasa, Immaculate Kizito, Phenomenology Online

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