Leveraging Contradictions to Unlock Innovation

February 15, 2017 Mark Evans


Tension can be a good thing.  Resistance is how our bodies build muscle. In teams, very productive work comes from teams that value and encourage differing points of view. This idea of embracing conflict also applies to finding breakthrough solutions to the problem that an innovation team has been charged with solving.

Last week I talked about the value of innovation teams focusing first on what needs to be done. Why are we here? What function needs to be delivered by the solution? Once a team defines this “job to be done," I recommend a second step that has similar power in driving goal clarity and creativity: identifying and articulating all contradictions inherent in the stated problem. In working with a wide range of teams over the course of my 35-year career in R&D with Procter & Gamble and subsequent engagements with YourEncore clients, I’ve found this step extremely valuable in staying focused while opening the range of possible solutions to explore.

By contradiction, I mean a situation where an action or change that leads to a favorable result in one characteristic produces an unfavorable result in another characteristic of the product, process, system, etc.  For example, in the hair care business, a well-known contradiction is that increasing the level of conditioning agents makes hair tangle-free and softer, but beyond a certain point, consumers complain that their hair feels oily and flat.  

It’s important to look for and explicitly “name” the contradiction in the core problem of a project for two key reasons. First, members of an innovation team typically have the contradiction in the back of their minds at the outset; it may be implicit knowledge that is perceived to be obvious and a “given” that must be worked around. If the contradiction is not explicitly stated, there is a tendency to just “live with it." This results in rather minor optimizations as teams address the challenge with well-known solutions.

Second, by stating the contradiction, the team can tackle it head-on, ultimately breaking it with a completely new approach. Operating within the constraints of a problem’s contradiction can lead to evolutionary improvements.   But I’ve seen revolutionary advances happen when a team thoroughly circumvents a contradiction. In the language of innovation, these teams move to a new performance “S-curve” where previously unseen performance or product attributes now shine.

 Here are three steps to help you leverage the power of the contradiction in your innovation efforts:

1. Spell it out. Use clear, technical terms. State it very succinctly. Avoid jargon. Don’t focus too early on solution approaches.

2. Examine assumptions. As George Deckner noted, every problem, and contradiction, comes with a long list of assumptions, many of which may be inaccurate and/or unnecessarily limiting. Test each one for validity and don’t accept conventional wisdom. Recognizing and challenging these assumptions often reveals powerful insights and new directions to explore in attacking the problem.

For example, in the personal care area, a very common contradiction is that great lather performance comes at the cost of mildness. Many of the best-lathering cleaning surfactants tend to dry out skin as the concentration increases. Huge amounts of R&D effort have been leveled against this contradiction, and many surfactant variations have been developed and commercialized. Most of the work has focused on creating additives that boost lather and reduce skin drying effects, based on the underlying assumption that the product is applied to the skin and simple rubbing generates the lather.  However, when this assumption was challenged by technologies that could deliver lather without requiring rubbing, such as self-foaming pump dispensers for hand soap or “puffs” for body washes, this contradiction was broken in an entirely different way. A completely new direction (using the dispenser or other lathering aid) led to a step change in how nicely lathering products can work with much lower concentrations and/or milder surfactants.

3. Look outside for inspiration. Identify other categories or fields where the same or similar contradiction you are facing has been important. Examine how it has been “broken” in those situations. This discipline of looking at adjacencies or parallel fields for solutions is extremely powerful.  In running Problem Definition Workshops for clients, we’ve seen that doing systematic adjacency analysis often reveals completely new approaches and delivers step-change innovation that revolutionizes the “job to be done.”  For example, one team needed to “innovate how they innovate” and were bottlenecked by the need to make hundreds of samples of a range of prototypes for in-use evaluations (real world testing was critical). Their usual mold suppliers came back with the usual production schedule, which meant long lead times before the options could be tested in market. However, looking at adjacent spaces led to the insight that the toy industry used a different manufacturing process that allowed it to meet short timelines and provide the nimbleness the business required. The team adapted the toy industry process to their needs. Problem solved!

Once you’ve clearly defined the problem, look for and name all contradictions that might implicitly or explicitly limit your search for solutions. Break the contradiction and you might just break through to a higher level of performance and competitive advantage.

Need help getting to a clear problem statement and articulating the contradictions within?  Contact me to learn more about how to identify and examine the real root issue, step back and challenge assumptions, and look broadly at what is needed to solve your challenges.



About Mark Evans: Mark is an expert in problem definition, adjacency mining, and leading open innovation programs and problem definition workshops for YourEncore clients. During his 35-year career in Research & Development with Procter &Gamble, his work leading open innovation programs for the Beauty Care division earned him the inaugural Connect + Develop Pioneer Award for Open Innovation. He has extensive experience practicing, leading and coaching Open and Front End Innovation programs with global companies across a broad range of industries, working with business leaders to make “build vs. collaborate” decisions, and leading the selection and development of partnering relationships. Mark has a BS in Chemical Engineering from Purdue and an MBA in Marketing from Xavier University.




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