Problem finding does not come easily to many people. 5 People tend to wait for others to find problems for them to solve rather than take the initiative to seek out or anticipate problems, changes, trends and opportunities for improvement or innovation.
Leavitt 6 suggested this tendency is, in large part, due to the fact that managers find their desks loaded with problems every day, making it easy for them to be reactive rather than proactive. In fact, people often avoid important problems that cut across organizational functions and department lines. The phrase “That’s not our problem” becomes a second-nature response for them. They also tend to avoid addressing complex or “wicked” problems; 7 that is, messy ones that do not lend themselves to analytical problem solving techniques. Even on less daunting but not obviously solvable problems, people often assume prematurely that “it can’t be done” simply because of their unwillingness to challenge conventions or step beyond the boundaries of their current work.
Can problem finding performance be developed? Recall the Toshiba story placing newly hired R&D engineers and scientists into the sales department to begin their careers, so they gain awareness that innovation begins with discovering customers’ problems.
Later, solutions to those problems become new products. Other top companies in Japan also teach new employees in first day orientation training sessions that problems are “golden eggs.” They are provided encouragement and simple structures to identify problems as opportunities for improving processes and products.
Employees are then encouraged to solve them and implement the solutions themselves. In North America, the 3M Corporation sets goals for its managers that provoke problem finding. For example, one goal calls for 25% of the company’s products to be new every five years. As well, 3M employees are required to spend 15% of their working time exploring new opportunities of personal interest to them.
Bottom line: Innovation is a process, not an event or an outcome. It is a process of finding and defining internal and external customer needs, developing solutions to address those needs, and successfully implementing those solutions. The needs – or problems to be solved – can be found across a broad spectrum of areas, including, but not limited to technology, products, markets, packaging, design, manufacturing processes, new business models, and new ways to go-to-market.
Using an effective innovation process will help you tackle customer problems other companies avoid…or can’t even find! Let’s look at Steve Jobs as a legendary entrepreneur who was great at finding worthwhile customer problems to solve.
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