The business world doesn’t expend much energy on problem finding. It’s an uncomfortable and often untidy process. And while many leaders consider themselves to be good problem solvers, most seem to find the idea of searching for new problems to be counter-intuitive. The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” theory of management is alive and well.

However, organizations that aspire to be industry leaders must not only accommodate and develop problem finding as an essential skill, they must give it high priority and visibility. Toshiba puts its new R&D scientists and engineers into the sales department to begin their careers because the company knows that innovation begins with problem finding — that is, discovering the problems of customers… often problems customers don’t even know they have.

Astute problem-seekers have the chance to solve problems that no one has yet recognized exist. Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, recognized this opportunity when he took a photo of his young daughter on the beach and she didn’t want to have to wait to see the picture. The key to the Polaroid innovation was discovering the problem, not undertaking the technical work leading to its solution.

In more recent years, Apple has built its mega-brand by imagining what could be, rather than focusing on what is. In other words, the company has proactively found new problems – or opportunities – that can be solved with its technologies.

Successful problem finding requires dedicated time and energy. Our research has found that it is not successfully managed or properly valued in most organizations. Problem generation is rarely practiced as a regular and ongoing activity. After skipping over, or giving only a passing nod to problem generation, unskilled managers tend to rush into the more familiar ground of problem solving. This results in wasted energy, as the organization seeks solutions to poorly defined or inappropriate problems.
The result is not one but two barriers to successful problem finding. Not only is there a preference to avoiding looking for new problems to solve, there is a dismal track record of solving the wrong problem due to persistent distractions, the tyranny of the urgent and the lack of skills required to properly identify problems that offer the potential for innovative solutions. But while there may be two barriers to problem finding, there are countless incentives for making your organization better at it. Think of Toshiba, the Polaroid camera and the iPod as the first three.