Don’t confuse solutions with innovation.

We live in a world where “solutions” are easy to come by. Advocates, experts and lobbyists offer ready-made answers to complex problems. Politicians take sides and become entrenched in their positions, while people argue back and forth endlessly rather than collaborating.

Many solutions are framed as total opposites — like gas and oil versus solar power — and are viewed through the lens of cancelling each other out rather than fitting together in a long-term energy strategy.

This ineffective form of problem solving typically ends up in a quagmire, accomplishing little beyond frustration. Nothing works because we haven’t taken the time to understand what problem our solution will solve.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and need only five to solve it.” Einstein was right. The ability to define a problem skillfully is the key to innovation. And collaboration is the key to skillful problem definition.

We’re reminded of a time when we worked with a consumer products company looking to lower the packaging costs of its potato chip products. While the chips had typically been shipped for delivery standing upright in large boxes, the manufacturing team discovered that it would save the company time and money if the individual bags were laid flat instead. But the new idea encountered resistance from the sales department because it slowed down the receiving process for customers, who typically counted the bags before signing the receiving documents.

Analyzing the situation made it clear that the real problem was, “How might we lay the bags flat but still allow the customer to quickly know how many bags are inside the box?” Several solutions immediately became evident, including providing each customer with a weigh scale so that opening the box and counting was unnecessary.

By defining the problem in a comprehensive way, the team developed innovative options that escaped the “if my solution wins, then your solution loses” approach that often results in stalemate.

Innovation demands disciplined thinking and collaboration. Just as we can see scientists all over the world racing together to create a vaccine to defeat the COVID19 virus, we need to encourage political collaboration on crucial issues.

How might we redefine the problem facing us today so we can move beyond the opposing solutions of either ‘saving lives’ or ‘opening our economies’? Expanding our perspective may inspire innovative solutions that satisfy many priorities.

Innovating in a global crisis: what do you do when you don’t know what to do next?

The tremendous impact of the coronavirus is altering the world for all of us in many ways.   No one, including organizational leaders, knows what to do next, where this is going or when it will end.  It could be six months or longer before we get back to anything normal and this new normal is expected to include pocket resurgences of coronavirus around the world. The situation we are in might be closer to World War II in magnitude than anything we have had to deal with since. I have worked in the trenches for more than 50 years and the current state of our world has me reflecting on other crises we have faced.  We will all get through the next months and years together and out of it will come a new normal. We will innovate. We always do.

The coronavirus situation has me thinking about uncertain times that followed other terrible global events. For what it’s worth, I want to share a story about how the leader of a client organization of ours responded innovatively after the horrific  events of September 11, 2001 by starting with the problem, “I don’t know what to do next.”

As CEO and Board Chairman of a global aerospace and airplane engineering company, he was seeing a huge threat to the viability of his company in the aftermath of 9/11. While the company had built itself a great reputation in the aerospace and aircraft field, with 28 business units making parts and systems for a variety of customers, the terrorist attack caused demand for flights to drop, resulted in a number of airlines declaring bankruptcy and no one knew what the impact would be on future aircraft sales. The company’s stock lost more than 80 per cent of its value overnight.  Normal strategies and practices could no longer be counted upon to ensure the survival and future viability of the company.  

Rather than “hunker down” into a defensive shell, the company made a deliberate decision to use innovation to rebuild. Here’s how. The leader quickly called the top seven senior executives to a meeting and told them, “I don’t know what to do next.” His admission of this problem triggered the team to turn to its innovation training. Relying on a proven innovation process, the team launched into fact finding, then challenge finding, then challenge mapping to develop a strategic plan for moving forward. They identified two higher level challenges as goals supported by four challenges that would drive their business for the next year or more and restore the price of their stock. The goals were: “How might we increase our top line and earnings growth?” and “How might we get the Wall Street analysts excited about our future?”  Below these goals were four supporting challenges which were more specific:  (1) How might we commercialize more new products every year?; (2) How might we take advantage of the current low stock market prices (of other companies to build up our own sales volume?); (3) How might we change our business mix to improve consistency?  (there were gaps in their menu of offerings); and (4) How might we increase cash flow to 100% of net income? (up from the current 80%).  They then engaged inter functional and inter divisional teams across the company to begin solving these four key challenges.

The innovation process helped them create and commit to a bold strategic plan. The company became even stronger as a result of the crisis. The stock price was restored in less than two years and the business continued to grow steadily for years to come.  So why do I tell this story?  Most of us remember the impact of 9/11 and how it reshaped the world we live in. We all felt shell-shocked and uncertain as to all the unknowns in front of us. Starting with a fuzzy challenge like “I don’t know what to do next” is okay.  You need a starting point, a problem even as loosely defined as this is something to start fact finding around.

Over my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of upheaval and amazing innovation in our world. I have no doubt that some amazing innovations will be made in the days ahead, as we come together as one global community.  Stay safe but more importantly, stay positive — we are all innovators who can and will rise up during a crisis.