insights & research

The Key to Innovation is Problem Definition

Interview with Dr. Min BASADUR, Professor of Organizational Behavior at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada (translated from the French version that appeared in Business Digest, No.141, May 2004)

History’s greatest inventors - from Thomas Edison to Polaroid camera inventor Edwin Land - were brilliant at discovering problems that people didn’t even know they had. According to Min Basadur, world expert in applied creativity, problem discovery is the key to innovation, and a solution is only truly creative when it has been successfully implemented.

The authors of Why Not suggest taking existing solutions and searching for new applications, whereas your approach begins with problem-discovery and ends with applying innovative solutions. Are these two systems incompatible?

It makes sense to try to use existing solutions elsewhere, and I think people do it all the time! The search for new applications for an existing solution can be viewed as a hunt for new problems to be solved. We view creativity as a cyclical process whose stages are successively: generating new problems and opportunities, conceptualizing a selected problem, and developing and implementing an optimal solution. The new solution or action automatically generates new problems and opportunities. In other words, a truly innovative solution is both an end and a beginning.

There is a set of thinking skills that is essential to the creative process. I call the first active divergence. That means creating multiple options. Children naturally see multiple possibilities, but adults and organizations generally stick to limited viewpoints. It’s important to acknowledge that people understand “facts” in numerous ways; this is a valuable source of creativity rather than an obstacle to overcome. The second skill, active convergence, is the opposite of the first and refers to the ability to analyze and judge options. The all-too-common scenario, “Let’s get six months more data before we decide” illustrates that people generally feel safer postponing a decision than making one. The third key skill is deferral of judgment, which is the ability to separate—rather than mix--the first two. This third skill is the most important yet the most difficult for many people. For if one person presents an option, another will most likely find a flaw in it and therefore dismiss it rather than consider the innovative elements it contains that can be built upon.

These skills come into play throughout the creative process. People need them to use tools like brainstorming effectively, and they also provide a common language for innovation. Research (Dr. Paul Mott, University of Pennsylvania) has shown that the best companies in any field do three things better than the others. They are more flexible, more efficient, and more adaptable. Adaptability is different from flexibility (which is reactive) because it is proactive and driven by creativity. It means that you deliberately go looking for new problems and offer solutions before your customers realize they have a need.

How can people actually go about discovering new problems?

An excellent example is the employee suggestion system used in many Japanese companies. They put a chart on the wall where workers write down 1) opportunities to improve their jobs or company products; 2) corresponding solutions that they and their co-workers come up with; 3) how the solution can be implemented. This system is a simple but highly effective means of generating good problems to solve, plus it turns weaknesses into strengths. Furthermore, as people freely choose which issues they want to help deal with, they end up working on the aspect of problem solving that they enjoy the most and that they do the best.

Proactive problem-discovery is both deliberate and disruptive. Deliberate: At 3M, there is a policy that says that every five years, 30% of products should not have existed 5 years previously. Disruptive: did not use technology to improve bookstores, but to change the way people buy books. Innovative companies set goals that force change and make it attractive. This means that even if a company has good processes, they keep looking around, and when they see something better, they seize the new opportunity before anyone else does. They keep track of variations and trends. For example, they could look for upcoming changes in legislation on which they can capitalize with new products or services. It is also important for leaders in particular to recognize and respect people’s various personal preferences for different stages of the creative process. All of the stages are important and there is as much room for creativity in implementing solutions as in generating problems.

What steps can organizations take to develop a more creative mindset?

First, a creative mindset starts at the top. CEOs of top companies agree that leadership in the 21st century is tantamount to the ability to drive change. For example, at Procter & Gamble we asked the CEO to send letters to the corporation’s 13 general managers requesting a list of deliberate change-project proposals. He told them to call me if they needed help. I taught them how to use the creative process to come up with and carry out new projects. This real-life application enabled the creative process to penetrate the whole organization.

Creativity has to be a part of the work and must be connected to specific, tangible goals to become permanent. In the 1980s, Frito Lay (snack manufacturer) set a major goal of offsetting inflation and flattening costs. Employees understood that they had a personal stake in company profits (their pension plans) and were thus motivated to solve what was seen as a personal problem. Again, I went into the company and taught people to use creativity. Everyone got involved and greatly improved company procedures, products, and services. Frito Lay achieved its objective in 4 years rather than 5 and then found new goals to engage employees’ creativity.

Are there areas in organizations where creativity is less desirable or overly time-consuming?

Creativity is needed everywhere! And it is not an undisciplined process! Thinking creatively means thinking well and it always saves time, otherwise it would be worthless. I worked with a Procter & Gamble development team that had been floundering for 6 months. They were trying to come up with a product to compete with Colgate’s Irish Spring soap—the first green-striped soap bar on the market. The team achieved a breakthrough by redefining the challenge as “how might we better connote refreshment in a soap bar” instead of “how might we make a better green-striped bar”. This gave the team had more room for creativity. It put an end to the 6-month standstill, and they subsequently developed a new blue and white swirly soap with a unique odor and shape that connoted freshness at the beach called Coast.

All companies and everyone in them can benefit from at least the basics of the creative process. I would very much like to see adaptability become routine throughout business and throughout the world. I am teaching in China quite a lot, and people there are very eager to create. As a unified country, China as a whole can set goals for innovation, so developing a culture of innovation seems attainable. Nevertheless, I find there are more cultural differences between companies than between countries.

In conclusion, the key to innovation may lie in attitudes. If people learn to replace expressions like “We can’t because…” with “How might we” and “Let’s defer judgment”, they will hold the real secret to cultural change and motivation.

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