Innovation appears prominently as part of almost any company’s strategy. Why then is it so hard to make it repeatable, scalable and lasting success? Scholars name key elements that bring innovation in sync, such as leadership, strategy and governance. Often, though, it’s not what organizations aren’t doing that causes a problem, but what they are doing—they’re tripping themselves up.

While there are many ways to trip, see if you recognize one of these three common ways in your organization. Fixing them can turn into a fast win and create the momentum necessary to get all the other pieces in sync.

We don’t have problems; we have challenges

“I don’t want to hear about problems, show me solutions.” Sound familiar? There are multiple reasons why different corporate cultures come up with different terms to beat around the fact that problems exist. Some cultures use “challenges,” “hiccups” or “issues,” for example. I’m sure you can think of others. Language both reflects and shapes thinking and behavior. What does this do to the overall culture?

Let me introduce you to Alexej. He has been hired from a startup-gone-bust into product development for a large German corporation. His first weekly report is greeted frostily. He has identified a problem, but merely naming in a report is considered unethical finger-pointing because of a silent consensus on whose fault it was. This bright young man learns this lesson fast. His reports turn into a list of “last week’s accomplishments.” He hides from others the challenges he is working on and stays away from sharing the opportunities for improvement he comes across. This already siloed organization not only loses the creativity and enthusiasm of a highly skilled individual, but also foregoes the enormous potential residing in an all-one-team approach to tackling problems.

Organizations should acknowledge: Human life is problem solving.

Organizations should acknowledge: Human life is problem solving. For people, any level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can quickly turn into a problem. Processes and entire departments are there to solve problems: “I don’t know next quarter’s financial results.” Industries solve problems, too: “I can’t communicate with a far-away person.”

The Russian innovation thinker Genrich Altshuller, inventor of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), observed: What sets the inventor apart is his or her ability to spot problems where the rest of us have grown accustomed to living with the hassle. Indeed, at times we don’t even notice that hassle anymore, that is, until someone comes up with the solution. Did anyone have a problem before the wheel was invented?

So firstly, from an organizational perspective, learn to recognize and acknowledge problems at face value, and to value the individuals who spot and communicate these problems.

Innovative = creative = good

Problem solving teams need problem solving diversity. Yet, taking a different style for an inferior level can lead to disastrous results.

To many of us this equation of “innovation = creative = good” appears right. Innovation being a loosely defined term, though, it is full of traps. To a cognitive psychologist, “innovative” is just one way of being creative. In this view, naming the creation of novelty “innovation” under-appreciates all other styles of being creative.

With the Kirton Adaption-Innovation (KAI) instrument, you can reliably measure people’s creative problem solving style on a continuum from highly adaptive—like Edison—to highly innovative—like Tesla. All too often, though, people confuse style (“How am I creative?”) with level (“How creative am I?”). Obviously, problem solving teams need problem solving diversity. Yet, taking a different style for an inferior level can lead to disastrous results. Unfortunately, the working together of and the later rivalry between Edison and Tesla is not the only example. People can be creative in so many ways—if only they acknowledged and also appreciated diversity better.

The equation “innovative = creative = good” has other implications, too. Have you ever heard the term “corporate antibodies”? They resist innovation. If innovation is good, then that means the antibodies are bad. But wait. We all have antibodies in our bloodstream. Do you have any desire to get rid of them?

First of all, resistance to innovation and change is the healthy reaction of a healthy organism. Your organization needs to learn to deal carefully with its own immune system. It may stand in your way if you want to implant a new liver, but don’t discard it for that sake. Instead, find ways of creating and dealing with novelty within your organization:

Resistance to innovation and change is the healthy reaction of a healthy organism.

  • Appreciate the many different ways of being creative—from Edison and Tesla to all the rest of us somewhere between them.
  • Overcome the learnt “phobia for innovation” and build your creative confidence instead.
  • Develop your corporate immune system such that risk can be minimized and novelty embraced.

Let’s form a team

While bringing together diverse and balanced teams is important, it’s only important if you actually need a team. We often see organizations over-do the one-approach-fits-all “let’s form a team” solution. All that forming, storming and norming has to be worth it. You can’t just take the “big team gun” and shoot from the hip.

Consider this example from a producer of sophisticated electronic parts. The company had recently branched into the assembly of solutions for customized printed circuit boards, shipping these systems in boxes of 20, 25, 50 and 100 pieces. Every now and then, however, these boxes arrived at their destination with pieces gone loose in their slots. Such “salad bowl” shipments led to mechanical defects and customer complaints. This being a global client-problem, a commensurate task force was formed. Soon after the team members from sales, quality, product management and several other functions started following up—each pressing his or her own case—with the one designer in a remote development center in charge of the new shipment boxes. This over-steering resulted in chaos and stress on all sides.

Luckily, the team understood what was going on and got back to square one, preparing a problem description using the 5W2H approach, in this case. Their insight: Not all “who are concerned” (the first “w” in the 5W2H) need to be involved in finding a solution because the “where” the problem arises (the second “w”) can be narrowly defined. As a result, the designer is freed up from any other task, can meet an expert from the subcontractor who produces the boxes and together they find a simple, viable technical solution which can be sustainably implemented by a broader team.

Once a problem is clearly understood you should ask: Can one person solve this problem alone? If so, then give the problem to that person and only grow the team as more diversity in skills and creative styles is needed.

Now do something about it

Change starts from the very top and with shared clarity. Alan Mulally, who recently stepped down as CEO from Ford Motor Co., found a culture of “we don’t have problems” when he took the reign in 2006. “You can’t manage secrets,” he famously said. As reported at the time by The Wall Street Journal, the moment of truth came when one manager showed the poor performance of his unit. “Great visibility,” Mulally is said to have applauded. Within a month, the organization got to “the yellows and the reds” [traffic lights] on their performance charts. For a reason, Forbes named Mulally as an “innovation CEO for the record books.”

I recently worked with operational excellence (OPEX) organizations in the financial and pharmaceutical industries on formulating their operational innovation strategies. The corporate cultures of these two companies favored adaptive, Edison-like, problem solving. Interviews confirmed that “crazy ideas,” “out-of-the-box exploration” and the questioning of “conceived wisdom” could turn into career killers.

Now what about the OPEX teams inside these organizations? You would assume that people who preach problem solving along the gospel of Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control (DMAIC) would be more Edison-like, right? To everyone’s surprise (even their own), they turned out to be “the Teslas” who had taken refuge from their otherwise more adaptive business climate. Would Edison be happy if Tesla explained to him how to approach things in a systematic way? Is it any surprise that these two OPEX teams felt they had little grip in their organizations? Would the deployment of more “innovation” really be the solution?

The nature of the problem drives the method for finding the solution.

Between the HBR book The Wisdom of Teams and the journal of Team Performance Management, a lot has been said on teams and how to make them successful. To get started quickly, consider this: The nature of the problem drives the method for finding the solution. The method drives team composition and team management. Here’s a simple decision tree for forming the right team to address a clearly understood problem:

  • Is a process management system in place? If not, put that in place.
  • Is the solution known? If yes, use classical project management.
  • Is the solution-space well-defined? If yes, use rapid problem solving like kaizen.
  • Will we stay with the same process, product or service? If yes, use Lean Six Sigma type approaches.
  • Is at least the concept for the solution known? If yes, use design-type approaches like Design for Six Sigma.
  • Are we developing a completely new product, process or business model? If yes, then use innovation-type approaches.

Problem description and approach will guide you fast to forming, leading and coaching the right team in the right way.

First, you must address the three common ways of tripping yourself up. Only then will you be well-set for getting in place all the rest it takes to making innovation and problem solving in your organization not only effective but also rewarding and even fun to lead and contribute to.

By Dr. Michael Ohler

About the author

Dr. Michael Ohler is principal and manager of European operations for strategy and innovation consulting firm BMGI. He also leads the company’s innovation practice for European operations. With more than 20 years of experience, Michael focuses on using people-driven approaches to shape and execute transformations, coach senior leaders, and train practitioners. He is a frequent speaker and author on topics related to strategy and innovation.

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