Innovation As Problem-solving

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Interview with Greg Satell, the author of Mapping Innovation: A playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age.

Business innovation expert Greg Satell helps you find your way by revealing the four models of innovation: Basic Research, Breakthrough Innovation, Sustaining Innovation, and Disruptive Innovation. One size does not fit all, so he provides a framework—the Innovation Matrix—for discovering which “type” of innovation process best suits the problem you need to solve. It’s about asking the right questions, so that you can apply the right strategies to the problems you need to solve.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Creativity Post had a chat with Greg the author of Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age 
 
 
Milena (The Creativity Post): I've greatly enjoyed your book, and because you define innovation in broad terms as "a novel solution to a significant problem," I would recommend it to everybody interested not only in innovation but also in creativity in general. Who, in your opinion, would benefit the most from using your "playbook for navigating a disruptive age"?
 
Greg Satell: Thank you, Milena. It's great to hear that you liked Mapping Innovation.
Your question is an interesting one because I wrote the book mainly for senior managers and entrepreneurs. However, since the book has come out, I've heard from a wide array of people, from educators to artists, who told me that they found it very helpful for their work. So that's been a lot of fun hearing about how people are using the book in ways I had never thought of.
 
Innovation is fundamentally about solving problems, and the main message of
Mapping Innovation is that you need to figure out what kind of problem you are trying to solve before identifying a solution. So I think the framework I developed can have a fairly wide application.
 
Milena: In your opinion, what is the difference between "creativity" and "problem-solving"? Is there any?
 
Greg: That's a very good question. I think of creativity as more akin to a skill. You can practice and get better at it, and it can be applied to a variety of tasks. One of those tasks is solving problems, so the two are highly related.
 
You can, of course, solve problems without creativity and sometimes that's a very viable way to go. Some problems, like what to make for dinner, can have very simple solutions, like ordering a pizza. Most people like pizza. But for difficult problems, usually, some creativity is required.
 
Milena:  I'm often very annoyed with popular books on innovation which habitually neglect to mention how complex and challenging entrepreneurship and innovation really are. You successfully avoid the trap of over-simplifications and warn against mindless emulation of simple techniques. What, in your opinion, is the most important trait of an innovator? What innovators often neglect to acknowledge? \What leads them to unexpected failure?
 
Greg: What I found in my research is that the main thing that sets great innovators apart is that they are constantly seeking out new problems. It was the one thing that every organization that can successfully innovate in the long term —  not just a one-hit wonder or anything like that — had in common. Some were small and agile; others were large and bureaucratic. Some were highly technical; others were not at all. Some were freewheeling; others were fairly conservative, but the one thing they all had in common was a systematic and disciplined effort to identify new problems to solve.
So I would say that exploration piece is what's missing in most organizations and in most people. You don't need to come up with a great idea or have some fantastic creative flair. If you continue to explore, you will find a meaningful problem to solve, and everything else will fall into place. But you have to keep at it, and that means you have to manage risks and resources well.
 
Milena: I like your take on the idea of MVP (Minimal Valuable Product) as a test for a most suitable business model. At the same time, I appreciate your warning against "leaving caution to the wind" -- innovators and entrepreneurs should pay a lot of attention to fundamentals. In this context, what is your opinion on "fail fast fail cheap (fail often)" method?
 
Greg: MVP is probably one of the most misunderstood terms floating around today. Many people confuse an MVP with a prototype when they are actually very different things. A prototype is a mock-up of an actual product. An MVP, on the other hand, is just a way of testing a hypothesis.
 
The best example I've heard of an MVP is how Nick Swinmurn tested the Zappos concept. He went to a shoe store, took some pictures of shoes, and posted them online using a very bare-bones site. When people ordered shoes, he went and bought them retail. Now, that's a horrible way to run a business; he lost money on every sale, but it's a great — and very cheap — way to test a business concept. It quickly became clear that selling shoes online had serious business potential.
 
So, an MVP doesn't have to look anything like an actual product; in some cases, it can be just a video or something. But, you want to be able to test as many hypotheses as you can, as cheaply as you can, with real customers before you start doing stuff that's going to cost you real money.
 
Milena: Could you explain why you recommend allocating more time for understanding the "ecosystem" in which innovation happens?
 
Greg: I think it's helpful to look back at the River Rouge plant Henry Ford built in the 1920's. It was fully vertically integrated, to the point that raw materials would go in one end and cars would go out the other. They even made their own steel! It was done on a massive scale and created a big competitive advantage for Ford.
 
But nobody makes plants like that anymore because it would be utterly stupid. Today, car manufacturers can leverage an entire ecosystem of highly specialized component suppliers to innovate every single facet of a car. Anybody who tried to do it all themselves couldn't hope to be competitive in more than a small fraction of the thousands of components that go into a car.
 
I think what's different today is that digital technology allows us to access even more ecosystems to extend our own capabilities. So anyone who isn't working hard to do that is basically trying to compete using a 1920s' River Rouge plant. So today, it's incredibly important to understand how to use platforms to access ecosystems of technology, talent, and information.
 
Milena: Do you think that the alteration of search cost in the digital age should (and would) affect the modernization of the education system?
 
Greg: I think it already has. When I was a student, we had to go to the library or an encyclopedia to access information. Today, any kid with Google search can access far more information than we ever could, so I think educators today need to take that into account.
 
The skills that we learned in school like how to retain information or manipulate numbers are largely outdated. The new century student needs to learn how to ask better questions and work on problems that don't have clear answers.
 
Milena: I'm often worried about too much emphasis on "constant cooperation." I understand your argument that in a more complex world, we need more input from different sources to accomplish goals. And yet, when we claim "only teams matter," we neglect an important aspect of the process: the sense of "ownership" of an original idea, which is often psychologically rewarding and motivating. A dilution of both: a type 'A' competitiveness and a more "introverted" type of productivity (outside of a group setting) might have unintended consequences. You seem to praise a role of several strong leaders in your book. After all, business is a competitive sport. How do you reconcile this contradiction?
 
Greg: It's a fair point. I think there's some confusion surrounding collaboration and teamwork. The data show clearly that work has become more collaborative and multidisciplinary. However, I don't think that means you actually have to work in a team setting to produce top quality work. Some people simply work better alone.
 
However, what it means is that we need to work harder to network today. There's an excellent study done by Brian Uzzi and others at Kellogg Business School that shows the most highly cited papers are produced by experts in a single field that bring in just a smidgen of insight from somewhere else. So it's really important that you're constantly interacting with a diverse network to find that smidgen.
 
I think that gets to your point about leadership. It used to be that a leader's job was to manage a hierarchy and make sure that everyone did their job to the right specifications. Today, however, successful leaders design ecosystems around a specific mission. That's a very different job because you can't do that by command and control
 
So leadership today isn't about getting people to do what you want, but getting them to want what you want and making sure they have the tools to succeed.
 
 
Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant and the author of Mapping Innovation. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @DigitalTonto
 
Milena Z. Fisher, Ph.D. is a philosopher, Public Relations specialist and entrepreneur.  She is a co-founder and president of The Creativity Post. Follow her @MilenaFisher
 

Tags: alteration of search cost, business engineering, business instinct, business model, business strategies, cooperation, creativity tips, digital tonto, entrepreneurship, greg satell, innovation, leadership, milena z. fisher, networking, problem-solving

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