Blog: To shape an innovation culture, start with a 'problem bank'

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To shape an innovation culture, start with a 'problem bank'

Much against the widely held belief that innovations start with great ideas, they, in fact, start with well identified problems
To shape an innovation culture, start with a 'problem bank'

In my consulting practice on innovation and strategy, I have come across several large organizations that struggle with ‘too many ideas’. The leaders and innovation champions are often at a loss as to what to do with those many ideas without hurting the morale of those who submitted those ideas at the first place. Such massive inventory of ideas is often a consequence of idea campaigns, or of late, hackathons, being administered. I confer that such aimless generation of ideas is a counterproductive exercise. It not only chokes the organization’s vital resources but also hurts employee morale. Instead of looking at ideas, why not look at problems. 

Much against the widely held belief that innovations start with great ideas, they, in fact, start with ‘well-identified problems’. Identifying and framing a problem is far more an important endeavor than solving it, especially in this connected economy. 

The failure of idea management campaigns can be broadly attributed to two reasons. Firstly, the purpose is often not clearly defined, so to say - ‘ideas for what’. Secondly, the incentives are either inexistent or unclear, in other words, ‘so what’. With a loosely defined scope, purpose, and incentives, the ideas are all over the place, and the expectation from the idea authors is at an all-time high, for you can’t critically look at your own idea. That’s where now the team that ran the campaign is in a fix, and very soon loses its credibility. The next time a similar campaign is launched, even if with all the learning from the past, the audience has developed cynicism. That’s where the whole effort does more harm than good. So, what’s the resort?

The intent must be to go back to the basics — the problem. What if you run a problem campaign, instead of an idea campaign, and instead of populating ideas, look at gathering problems? In any large organization, there are problems which remain invisible to the top management, or so to say, the CEO is often the last one to know. People in the trenches are more acutely and proactively aware of the problems, and even the solutions. Except that by the time the problem surfaces and reaches to the top, it blows out of proportions. So, why not listen to the people who are most mindful of the situations and the problems? That’s why — solicit problems and not solutions, to begin with.

Imagine the innovation team running problem campaigns once every quarter across the organization. The intent is to invite problems, and preferably the root causes. Why should people bother about surfacing problems? What’s the incentive? Firstly, by making the problem submission process anonymous, you don’t end-up ‘killing’ the messenger, and that’s a big incentive for the outliers. Secondly, instead of solving a problem that only remotely impacts you, an employee is more likely to solve an acute problem that is nearer to her.

With the most significant problems, and preferably the root causes gathered, the team now identifies the most repetitive, significant problems, and then throw these back to the employees to now generate solutions. Two practices need to be taken care of here — firstly, the exercise must be time-bound; and, secondly, the incentives must be stated clearly and upfront. Such sharp campaigns cannot only motivate employees, for now, the problems that they care about are getting solved, and they feel ‘heard’. 

Remember, solving a problem is often not as important as acknowledging it.  

With such problem campaigns ran periodically, very soon the organization would have helped surface real issues, across business, talent, and technology, amongst other areas, and that’s a good position to be in. If the leaders then deem that solving some of these problems call for external intervention, they have a rationale now. One can outsource the chore of problem-solving, but not the task of problem defining.

The next time you are endowed with the responsibility of shaping the culture of innovation at your organization or team, start with gathering and identifying problems. Don’t assume problems; learn to listen to them as they are stated, from the people who face the problems. This exercise will serve the dual purpose of employee engagement and problem discovery, and ideation and solutioning can follow, or be even outsourced. 

A problem fully understood is half solved. 

Topics: CEO-CHROPartnership, Culture

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