By Mike Rainone

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about innovation came from a group of college kids. 

I was teaching an industrial design course, and on the very first day, I gave them an assignment: “Go home and ask your family, ‘What makes your life crazy?’ Then think about how you could solve that problem.”

They came back to class with all sorts of ideas, from special blenders to a hair bonnet that let you comfortably sleep with rollers in your hair. 

Holy crap, I thought. These are great ideas! 

Despite having no real-world experience in product design, the students had managed to come up with fifteen viable ideas in just a couple of days. At the end of the course, after they had designed and then beautifully prototyped their ideas, they had the opportunity to pitch to representatives of a major appliance company, who said they’d love to sell any one of them. 

This was the lesson: innovation begins with finding good problems to solve, and great ideas can come from anywhere. So if you want an innovative edge at your company, you must work to get everyone involved in problem-seeking. In particular, there are five types of people you should be consulting, with each one bringing unique strengths to problem-seeking.

#1: Customers

A good problem is one that provides value if solved, so customers offer important perspectives in problem-seeking. One of the fundamental purposes of innovation is to find an unmet customer need and fill it, and who knows customer needs, whether stated or unstated, better than customers themselves? 

Not only can customers provide insight into the problems they face, but they, with careful discernment on your part, can also help you understand which problems they really care about—a.k.a., the problems that, if solved, they would pay money for.

While customers have valuable knowledge, they typically struggle to articulate it. Most often they understand the need, but they don’t have the vision to hone in on the solution. As Hal Sperlich, the chief architect of the Chrysler minivan, explained, “No one asked us for a minivan.” It’s your job to extract the knowledge. To learn more about how to effectively do so, check out our previous blog, “Making the Most of Your Product Focus Group.”

#3: Sales/Marketing

I once joked with a director of business development, “You don’t want to go sell this product; you just want to take orders.”

“Yeah!” he shot back immediately. “And I want it to be really cheap and work better than everybody else’s, so I don’t actually have to do anything.”

It was a joke, but really, it’s the truth. Every salesperson and marketer wants a product that sells itself. Who wouldn’t want to make their job easier? So salespeople and marketers have a strong incentive to help drive innovation, and they’re also well positioned to understand the problems to solve.

Salespeople are constantly faced with the most pressing, important problems to customers—a.k.a., the problems that get in the way of a sale. More than anyone else in the company, salespeople are exposed to why customers don’t want to buy a product. Maybe it’s too expensive. Or too confusing to use. Or not sufficiently better than a competitor’s product. Whatever the problem, if the salespeople are engaged in active listening with the customer, they are the ones who will know. 

Like salespeople, marketers are important because they are clued in to what the customer wants from a more high-altitude viewpoint. Marketers should be focused on understanding the voice of the customer from a large-sample point of view, so they’ll be able to identify which problems would move the needle if solved.

While each customer understands his or her own problems, salespeople and marketers see the bigger-picture trends across customers, which helps them identify the problems that have the most impact.

#3: The People in the Field

Like customers, the people in the field—the ones involved in day-to-day operations—are critical in problem-seeking because they’re the ones with problems to solve. 

We recently consulted with a retired surgeon who wanted to design a better cast. In her work, she saw time and again that traditional casts were lacking. They’re heavy, bulky, and uncomfortable, and they can’t adapt to the patient’s process of recovery, which can lead patients to do things they shouldn’t be doing that could interfere with healing. Then, by the time the cast is ready to be removed, it stinks to high heaven, and it’s a pain to get off, requiring a saw, which makes them one-time use. 

When she puts it like that, yes, those are important problems to solve! Since I’m not a surgeon, I never would’ve been able to identify these problems, and would have accepted that reality as just the way it is, but for her, they were obvious.

The people in the field are the ones living the problems day-to-day, so they will have key insights. Essentially, you want to ask the people in the shit what kind of shovel they need to dig themselves out!

#4: Executives

The fundamental question of problem-seeking is “What do we need to do to beat the competition?” The executives of a company are the ones who should be most keyed into that strategic question.

Unfortunately, in my experience, executives are often the ones who say they want innovation while getting in the way of actually doing innovation. Usually, the best thing they can do is simply get out of the way and delegate others to do the work of problem-seeking (and problem-solving).

However, executives should have one big strength in problem-seeking: a big-picture view of the competition and current environment, both external and internal. They should understand the overall industry and trends. At minimum, one person in the C-suite should be dedicated to competitive intelligence and plotting on how to catch up or surpass the competition. “Our competitor has X, and we don’t” is a great problem to solve. However, and more importantly, they should also be scouting the world for the things (like new technology and supply side, financial, and demographic trends) that will get them ahead of the competition, not just meet it. 

While executives are often too far from the problems to identify them, they can help point people in the right direction when they recognize it.

#5: Engineers

I’ve saved engineers for last because it’s usually better for them to take a back seat in problem-seeking. It’s nothing against engineers—I’m one myself. Engineers are simply better equipped to solve problems, not necessarily to find them. That said, engineers do play an important role in problem-seeking: being up to date on new technological developments. 

Some problems are eternal in product development:

  • Cost
  • Reliability
  • Speed
  • User friendliness

Customers (and thus companies) always want things to be cheaper, more reliable, faster, and easier to use. These are all “problems,” but they’re not good ones, because they’re too vague and open-ended to drive innovation effectively. 

This is where engineers come in. Sometimes, the way you specify a problem is by discovering a way to do something better. For example, say your engineers learn about a new alloy that is incredibly strong and flexible. Now they’ve identified a specific problem to solve: the material currently being used is not as effective as it could be. Not only have they identified the problem, they also already have a good path to a solution.

So your engineers should be on the leading edge of technology, paying attention to what new developments are coming down the road. 

Finding the Next Great Idea

Successful problem-seeking comes from having a network of folks all rowing in the same direction. They all have to be listening to the customer, anticipating the customer’s needs, and looking for the right problem to solve. With everyone rowing in the same direction, you can discover new, unexpected paths of innovation.

To innovate, you need to do things differently than others, and you need every advantage you can get. You never know where the next great idea will come from. So get everyone involved in problem-seeking; it must be part of your corporate culture.

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