Dr. Linda Sands23 August 2019

Don’t Miss This Key Innovation Step

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

People are generally pretty good at generating ideas. But unfortunately, we have a tendency to fall in love with these ideas. We love shiny new things that catch our attention, especially things that involve new technology. Although coming up with creative ideas is essential to innovation, we need to wield this power at the right step in the innovation process instead of rushing into it.

Before we jump to ideas, we first need to be 100% clear on the customer problem we are trying to solve. Ask yourself two questions: “Do I truly understand our customer’s problem from their perspective?” and “Is this problem important enough that they would value a solution?”

If you can answer “yes” to both questions, you have a good chance that solving the problem will produce something customers want.

To improve the effectiveness of our innovation efforts, start by falling in love with your customer’s problems. Get attached to finding a solution, as opposed to getting attached to the solution itself.

Here are three signs that you have failed to find a great problem.

People have not left their office building to spend time with customers. When people don’t get close to their customers, they fail to truly understand their problems and importantly, to have empathy for what customers are experiencing.

When people are asked what problem they are trying to solve, they find it difficult to articulate. This is often accompanied by scrambling through their notebook, or even worse, a description of a problem the organisation wants to solve, not the customer.

When team members are asked to explain the problem, they articulate it in different ways. This shows that the team has not spent enough time agreeing on a problem definition and lacks alignment.

Instead, to ensure you fall in love with your customers’ problems, take these three steps to improve the effectiveness of your innovation efforts.

1. Spend time with your customers. Observe them and ask questions to understand the problems they experience. Try to experience for yourself what customers feel when they encounter these issues – this helps build empathy. For example, if customers are frustrated that it takes too long to contact your technical support by phone, observe this process in action. What does “taking too long” look like? Is the phone line engaged when they call, or are they kept on hold, or do they get stuck in a phone tree with a series of automated messages? Try to call technical support yourself to experience what your customers are experiencing.

2. Confirm you truly understand the problem. Check back with your customers to ensure you have correctly understood the problem. If your customers had a number of problems, check that you have focused on the most frustrating and important one – the one that the customer would most value a solution to. When liaising with customers, it can be easy to add in your own assumptions and lead them toward what you think.

3. Ensure everyone on the working team is clear and aligned on the problem. Allow time to craft a description of the problem so every team member is in agreement and understands it. This has two benefits. First, the very act of writing and re-writing drives clarity. Second, time and effort spent at this stage to get team members aligned will save time later. When a team is clear and aligned on the problem, they are starting from a solid foundation.

ONLY when you are 100% clear on the problem, should you move to the next step: unleashing your creative ideas to solve it. Take the time to fall in love with your problem because this is where innovation starts.

Dr Linda Sands is a consultant at Inventium who focuses on helping organisations to be better at innovation. She also leads Inventium’s Intrapreneur Club, a club that brings together innovation leaders from organisations across Australia to learn and grow.