Need ideas for your next innovation session? Here's a prompt for every season.
By:

In his new book, innovation expert Stephen Shapiro recommends taking a challenge-driven approach to innovation, rather than open-ended idea collection, which tends to be wasteful of human resources and rarely delivers problem-solving ideas.

Too many organizations are focused on “thinking outside of the box,” instead of providing their employees with meaningful constraints to direct their creative energies toward specific challenges or objectives. So says innovation expert Stephen Shapiro, in his new book, Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition.

“Your organization has no shortage of problems and you can find these challenges everywhere – from your customers, employees, shareholders consultants, vendors, competitors and more. An organization’s ability to change (i.e., innovate) hinges on its ability to identify and solve these challenges,” he explains.

Shapiro outlines 3 advantages to using challenge-driven innovation versus open-ended idea collection:

Focus people’s efforts: “Challenges are the best way to ask your employees, customers or any community for help. It allows them to focus their energies on finding solutions that will ultimately be relevant to the needs of the organization.”

ROI measurements: You can employ tools to track the amount of time spent finding solutions. That, in turn, can help you to measure the ROI of each challenge and the overall program – something that is impossible to do with open-ended idea collection and evaluation.

Assign resources in a focused way: “With a challenge-driven approach, you can assign owners, resources and funding, evaluators and evaluation criteria before investing the valuable time of employees and others.” For best results, Shapiro recommends assigning a challenge owner (the person who most wants to see the problem solved), allocate resources, select evaluators and define evaluation criteria up front.

What does it matter if you take an open-ended, idea-centric approach versus the more focused and directed challenge-driven method? Shapiro shares a memorable analogy that drives the point home that you can’t afford to take the former approach:

Idea-driven approaches are like a fisherman choosing a random spot in the middle of the ocean and casting an extraordinarily expansive net. While using an untargeted approach like this might yield some fish, that fisherman will also collect shoes, tires, seaweed and other undesirable items. And the fish he does catch will probably not be the specific type he was looking for.

“Contrast that with a fisherman who purposefully locates a school of fish and then deliberately selects the appropriate rod, reel, line, leader, bait and hook for catching the exact type of fish he wants, effectively eliminating waste and maximizing the impact of his efforts. As the old expression goes, ‘If you want to catch fish, go to where the fish are.’ That’s the challenge-driven approach.”

Shapiro concludes that setting boundaries does not necessarily put constraints on your organization’s innovation efforts. Rather, if it’s properly structured, “it has the capacity to dramatically enhance creativity and increase organizational effectiveness. So the next time you’re tempted to say, ‘Think outside the box,’ think again,” he adds.

A podcast for disruptors!