Monday, April 12, 2010

Innovation is solving problems without constraints

As a person who started out as an engineer, I know that most engineers like to solve problems that are useful to society.  Often this means that there are tradeoffs and constraints associated with any problem.  Cars that get higher gas mileage may need to be lighter, but lighter cars don't survive crashes as well as heavy cars.  So when we are presented a problem to solve or an opportunity to address, we often start out by trying to define the constraints.

These constraints could be based on technology issues, but are often based on other factors, like legal or regulatory issues, pricing or cost issues, distribution or transportation issues and so forth.  When we as innovators agree to work within a set of bounds or constraints to solve problems, we are like the kids in kindergarten who are encouraged to "color within the lines" - that is, we accept the constraints and our thinking is guided by nudging right up next to the constraint, but never violating or ignoring the constraint.  In this manner the constraint conforms our thinking and becomes a barrier.  We don't challenge the constraint but accept it, and that governs the outcome.  Since every other firm in the same space or industry is challenged with the same constraints, most of the solutions look very similar.  We've become prisoners of our own thinking, happily limited in our degrees of freedom by constraints we've accepted.

Now, good innovators will tell you that what we need to do, at least temporarily, is to ignore the constraints and push beyond those barriers to generate solutions, then examine our recommended solutions to determine if they can deliver the same, or better, outcomes while conforming to the constraints, or changing the constraints to offer an even better solution.  This approach considers the most optimal outcome, then seeks to determine whether or not it can fulfill the original constraints, or if those constraints can be changed.  Innovation happens when someone in an industry, or, more typically, someone outside an industry who rejects the group think within the industry, decides to set aside the accepted norms and constraints and to think more expansively about the problem or opportunity.  Then, with a number of possible solutions in hand, the innovator seeks alterations that will allow the new idea to fit within the constraints, or seeks to modify the constraints based on the value of his or her solution. 

Recently I heard the VP of Innovation from RJR talk about their process for setting innovation guidelines.  He called it a "fence setting" exercise.  After all, we all want to know the "space" where we can innovate.  His team is responsible for setting the "fences" which dictate the important "space" where the teams should generate ideas, but I suspect their approach is probably less focused on specific constraints and more focused on providing strategic guidance.

A combination of fence setting - to direct teams to focus their efforts on strategic innovation spaces or markets and unconstrained thinking - to move outside of the "color within the lines" mentality that limits our thinking - will drive new ideas within your organization that have real value.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM


Blogger Aneesh Karve said...

Said another way, innovators focus not just on problem solving, but problem setting (which problems to solve). Rather than getting better at playing the game, they are willing to change the rules.

10:00 AM  
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