How to Make an Innovation Challenge

We've seen this movie before: Creating new value starts with understanding needs, aka. the pains and gains of your current and future customers, and then embarking on a journey of product/service design, customer testing, and finally scaling. Works best in iterations. Sounds simple. It isn't.

Since the first step of any innovation journey is to define a problem that is actually worth solving, we sort of assume that executives carry around a bunch of business challenges where innovation could be the answer. That's not the case at all. For the most part, framing a challenge is a challenge in itself.

First, there's a mental barrier. In highly practiced environments, you're supposed to be the subject matter expert, on top of things, not the person with all the open questions rocking the boat. In other words, it is connected to highly specialised people's professional identity.

Second, there's an impact ceiling. Since organisations are optimised for efficiency, there's a limit to how much you can inflate a challenge. At any given level in an organisation, challenges are framed within the scope of that level. If a problem really worth solving (with innovation) is outside this scope, as is usually the case, complexity grows in terms of ownership, sponsorship, and allocation of a team to actually do the work.

Third, there's decision paralysis. Instinctively, we want a complete, in-depth overview of the entire problem space before nominating anything, because what if, shortly after having framed an innovation challenge, a more interesting challenge appears out of nowhere. Overthinking the exercise, organisations tend to involve too many people, almost building a separate process just to get started.

For these reasons (there are others), organisations are struggling with setting direction for innovation, and consequently it feels like stop-and-go-innovation that goes in circles. You have to think differently.

Innovators promote a radical tool that shares its name with helping drug addicts: The intervention. The key idea is to assemble a team with diverse knowledge and backgrounds, provide a safe space for them to explore, and free their calendars for a fixed amount of time. And give them the task of coming up with a problem worth solving.

Such a cross-functional, empowered team will quickly realise that a shortcut to mapping challenges is to involve customers. They will also conclude that challenges are different depending on whether they solve an existing, known problem, or something broader and more strategic. They might map challenges on a timeline of horizons, and even classify whether they are related to the back office or the customers. Ultimately, they will try to put a price tag onto each challenge that tells what they are worth (if they are solved).

In just a few days, you will have bootstrapped an innovation journey by co-creating focus and direction complete with a force-ranked list of problems worth solving. This exercise can and should be repeated, ideally with a different team, on a regular basis to refine and improve the list.

For the rest of the journey, innovators and designers tend to "trust the process". This is the good old sequence of getting ideas based on insights, selecting the most interesting, designing experiments to validate them, and repeating until the idea is sufficiently de-risked to enable an evidence-based business case to be crafted. Compared to framing innovation challenges, that's all mostly execution.

• Thanks for your interest.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash