Many organizations believe that they are lacking the people they need to be innovative. If only they had the right talent on their team—maybe some of those youthful digital natives from a hot startup or consultancy—transformation would finally be possible.
While understandable, this focus on new talent is one of the major barriers to creating sustainable innovation.
In our work, we have learned that an organization’s existing employees are generally just as capable of thinking outside of the box as any ‘rock star’, once properly activated. They even have an advantage. Their ability to leverage both an understanding of context, and the wealth of accumulated experience already present in your organization, leads to innovations that are more creative, more feasible, more valuable — and more successful.
The accumulated experience already present your organization leads to innovations that are more creative, more feasible, more valuable — and more successful.
The important part, then, isn’t talent. It’s process: consistently nurturing an approach to innovation that gives teams the skills and permission they need to realize new possibilities.
But what’s the right process for you and your team? Although it can seem there as many different approaches as there are providers, at root they’re all built upon similar, well-established critical thinking principles. Principles that have been used by organizations recognized as some of the world’s most innovative, as well as those mistakenly thought of as non-innovative, to create products and experiences that have fundamentally reshaped their relationship with their customers and employees.
The key steps fit into four stages, which we’ll explore through this four-part series. With the right objectives and best practices in place, each step has a clear ‘home team’ advantage.
The 4 core stages of an innovation process.
- Problem Framing (this post): Clarifying the root challenge driving you to innovate.
- Discovery (Part 2): Understanding what matters to the people you aim to serve.
- Ideation (Part 3): Conceiving new opportunities that are highly valuable, yet executable.
- Realization (Part 4): Bringing a concept to life, offering it to the public, then improving it.
Stage One: Problem Framing
Problem framing is about setting the initial parameters that define where a specific project will focus effort. It needs to balance two competing tensions. On one hand, successful innovation demands expanding your way of thinking beyond your usual perspectives and assumptions. On the other, it is equally important to stay anchored in a core challenge you want to address, lest you find your work veering off course.
Organizations involving their current teams in innovation get high value out of this process. The deep, long-term understanding these staff can bring to the challenges they face and have faced often allows them to quickly get to the root causes of a problem and identify important gaps in which to expand their understanding of it.
We believe that correctly framing a problem statement that is expansive yet focused requires getting to the human root of a challenge. While “we need a digital platform for people to interact with us” is worth addressing, as a problem statement it misses the core human experience that makes a challenge meaningful and important.
Getting to that level of significance requires fleshing out what lies behind initial statements like these from a few key vantage points:
What is driving the business challenge? Has the public you served changed, changing how it wants to interact? Are cost pressures forcing digitization? Are the needs your service fulfills being better or easier served by non-public providers, threatening the viability of serving marginal populations? Progressively asking ‘why’ about each problem statement identifies the deeper ‘need behind the need’ you must understand to ensure you focus your effort in the right direction.
What guardrails (such as policy constraints, unchangeable assumptions, and hypotheses) exist around the challenge? Is a digital solution a must-have due to political or budgetary considerations, regardless of other factors? Is serving a specific population a non-negotiable part of your mandate? Surfacing what cannot be modified aids in the development of feasible solutions, while also adding further resolution to the problem at hand.
Who are the people we need to understand to address the challenge? Business challenges are at root human ones. Addressing them rests on learning more about some combination of the people or businesses you seek to serve, the stakeholders involved in the broader ecosystem, and your internal delivery staff and capabilities. Defining who it is you most need to better understand is crucial.
What do we need to learn about them to address the challenge? Understanding how and why people act or want to act in certain ways is critical to designing new solutions to their problems — and therefore yours. Thinking carefully about the gaps you’d need to fill to address your business challenge not only helps to define the work to be done. It can also surface new elements of the challenge previously unrealized.
While “we need a digital platform for people to interact with us” is worthy to tackle, as a problem statement it misses the core human experience that makes a challenge meaningful.
Think about each of these aspects in turn, and also consider what your answers to each imply about the others. This will help you and your team develop a powerful problem frame, one that makes the most of their deep expertise in defining the narrow business need at hand, while also opening the aperture through focused attention to the human experience behind it.