The Most Important Question for Innovation Teams: Why Are We Here?

February 7, 2017 Mark Evans

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  --Albert Einstein

In his recent posts on innovation, Dr. Shekhar Mitra talked about the importance of the Innovation Brief, which outlines the specific focus of an innovation team’s work. It reflects the business vision and innovation strategy, while focusing on a tightly defined, clearly articulated problem to be solved.

The need to start with a defined problem sounds both obvious and simple, right? Yet over the course of my 35-year career in R&D with Procter & Gamble and subsequent engagements with YourEncore clients, I’ve found that it is easier said than done. Often, teams spring into action, tackling symptoms vs. root causes and missing the opportunity to deliver game-changing results. So how do you get to the heart of the matter and craft a powerful problem statement that both focuses and frees your innovation team to discover breakthrough solutions?

Start with the “job to be done”

Problems are best defined when they focus first on what, not how. What function needs to be delivered by the solution? What are the “jobs to be done” by this innovation? What are the core consumer or customer insights that are driving a need for change? Frame these insights in terms of the desired outcome, not in terms of how to achieve that outcome.

Teams often focus first on exploring “how” to solve a problem. However, starting with “how” is narrowing and tends to address symptoms … just at the time when looking broadly and tackling the cause is critical. Teams say, “we don’t have time to look broadly; we already understand what we need to do, and we need to get to market fast!”  But, in fact, looking at a problem in terms of the “job to be done” opens many more productive avenues and options to explore, leading to quicker, more efficient implementation.

For example, a team was faced with product degradation when a critical material interacted negatively with other ingredients. The initial problem statement for the team was “find a replacement for material X.” From that perspective, all the potential solutions required reformulation and a significant process change. However, when the team reframed the problem to the cause of the interaction (the “what”), not the material itself, many new possibilities presented themselves. In fact, a relatively straightforward change in the process conditions eliminated the negative interaction without impacting product performance.

Similarly, a team working on a therapeutic product defined their problem as “reduce the cost of material X”. They were prepared to focus on a variety of “how’s” to modify material X or its production process that might lead to cost reduction. However, when the team stepped back and redefined their goal as “improve the overall economics of product Y”, many new, alternative possibilities were identified. It turned out that much more effective delivery technologies had become available, which allowed a reduction in the amount of expensive material X that was needed, and eliminated the need to reformulate. The result was lower risk to product performance and a faster route to success.

Bring business and technology together… clearly and concisely

As Dr. Mitra noted, the best innovation briefs (and problem statements) are co-sponsored by the senior business and innovation leaders. They bring business and technology together, connecting deep consumer insights with technical briefs. Clear, well-defined problem statements use technical and scientific language. This facilitates alignment across a team, up the line of management and with collaborators. It also helps identify the specific skill sets and experience required among the team members themselves.

Breakthrough solutions to difficult problems come from very well-defined problem statements. This applies to broader issues such as business models, strategy, and organizational design, as well as technical challenges. Once a problem is well-defined in terms of the functional outcome (the “what”) and in clear, concise, technical, and scientific language, then it is very useful to look at all manner of “how’s” to accomplish the job to be done. Finding these attributes will roll productivity and innovation over into the entire project ahead, leading to an increasingly better end-product. Using the creative problem solving approaches described previously by George Deckner will lead to many different potential solutions to consider, all directed at getting to the core of the problem you have defined. 

Need help getting to a clear problem statement?  Contact us 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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