Innovation Series: #3

[March 15, 2021] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas



Starting small but getting started

Series Introduction


Our world has changed. Things are different now. We all need to be innovators to some degree, challenging the past based on our new reality, and finding ways to improve our personal and professional lives as we move forward.

In our last two blogs we talked about the need for new logic and an innovator’s mindset in our ever-changing world, as well as ways to create the personal courage and credibility needed for innovation. This week, we’ll focus on beginning the innovation process -- starting small but getting started, learning innovation as we go.


Design Thinking

Design thinking is all about getting into a mode of awareness and curiosity about the pain points of the status quo and staying open as you look for new solutions to these problems. It’s about learning to dance with uncertainty as you weigh multiple options. And while a healthy fear of the unknown is quite acceptable, don’t let it stop you from exploring the “what-if’s” in your midst.

Much to the disappointment of some, design thinking is NOT coming up with a wonderful product and then backtracking to find a problem that it can potentially solve. This too often leads to the tail wagging the dog as a hesitant group attempts to retrofit a “solution” to a problem they may or may not have. Been there? We have!

So, the first step in this innovation process is to identify a real problem that is getting in people’s way – causing pain, inconvenience, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, frustration, temper tantrums. Start here!!! Problem first. Solutions second. Avoid the temper tantrums.

Types of Problems

There’s no end to the number and types of problems we encounter each day. It can be challenging, however, to select a problem as a starting point for innovation that is not too big and not too small as you learn and expand your capabilities of innovation. Consider the following:

  • Simple problems. Some problems can be identified as clear and simple – both the problem and a solution can be well defined without investing too much intellectual or creative energy. So in the case of simple problems, just do it – figure it out yourself, or pull together a small performance-improvement team and go for it!

  • Wicked problems. Some problems are wicked, meaning they are so complex that they are not well understood and great effort is required to even partially understand the problem over time. Don’t start here.

  • Ill-Defined problems. Most problems we encounter in our ever-day work life are ill-defined. They become “normalized” into our world as we skirt around, adapt to, ignore, or tinker with them. They make their presence known but are difficult to wrap your arms around. With some extra effort, many of these problems can be rendered graspable and easily processed (Lewrick, Link & Leifer, 2018). This is our starting point for innovation!

Start with Making Your Own Job Easier

All jobs are made up of a set of processes that get the work done. This includes everything from performing neuro surgery to picking up the trash. The starting point for identifying innovation opportunities is to map out the steps in a particular job, from the customer’s perspective. Consider yourself as the customer, or user, as you perform your daily work. Consider how you could improve on the execution of your own work processes.

Improvements come from simplifying a process in a variety of ways, to include reducing the number of steps, adding an overlooked step, resequencing the steps in more effective ways, changing the pace of the process and providing the user with critical feedback to continue to improve their performance. Here are some simplification descriptions and tips:

  • Simplify the planning process. Create systems that require less intellectual effort because they are more intuitive and easily understood, such as through the use of bundling steps, color coding, incorporating visual aids, and creating auditory and visual alerts.

  • Ensure that the required inputs are readily available when needed. Rather than the expectation of gathering or assembling multiple pieces and parts, provide pre-packaged kits with all the necessary components to get the process going. Great example – pre-packaged PPE kits to give your office mates which include a mask, gloves, bacterial wipe.

  • Make the set-up process easier. Anticipate unexpected problems in the set up and build in guides, prompts and/or forcing functions to make the preparation less difficult and more successful.

  • Provide ongoing monitoring and feedback. Feedback can be in the form of real-time alerts, decision support information, data analytics, and any type of information that enhances the user’s experience and helps them meet their goals. The closer to real-time feedback, the better. In this instance – data is your best friend!

  • Incorporate automatic functions that make it easier to do the right things. Push information, updates and functions out to users so that they are readily accessible, meaningful, and usable, rather than wait for them to pull the functions in. This simplifies the process of making needed alterations to the system as you go.

As you contemplate your daily work, think about an ugly workaround that you and others encounter on a regular basis – that thing that makes you want to scream! Workarounds are those steps you take to go around a dysfunctional work process that gets in the way, slows you down and even prevents you from accomplishing your objectives. Think about the most recent introduction of a new technology, regulation, procedure or even a newly-created role in the organization. Each of these can quickly result in workarounds when the planners and/or implementers do not have a clear understanding of the conditions in which the new workflow occurs. Sound familiar?

While workarounds may alleviate some of the stress in the moment, they often don’t take the full issue into account -- the underlying causes of the problem that are creating the need for a workaround in the first place. In essence, it’s like treating a symptom of a disease without understanding the disease itself. This can result in exacerbating all kinds of health problems and should be avoided whenever possible!! Similarly, in the workplace, too often we create much-need workaround solutions that don’t get to the deeper issues and risk creating unanticipated problems downstream, without our awareness. Ugly workarounds -- what a great place to start your innovation experience!

The Art of a Good Problem Statement

Clearly defining and describing a problem is a pre-requisite for developing a solution. Before jumping to the creative side of innovation, the problem must be understood by you and others. When this doesn’t happen, much time, energy and resources are wasted as we spin in circles chasing our tail. The spin is where the frustration begins!

Ill-defined problems, such as those that cause many of our workarounds, become clearer when we ask questions that begin with the words why, how and what. Repeatedly asking “why” expands the creative frame and eventually takes you to the outer limits of your comfort zone. Asking questions with “how” narrows down the possibilities. And asking questions that begin with “what” helps us consider multiple perspectives. Here are some examples of questions related to the familiar problem of wearing masks to avoid COVID transmission:

  • Expanding Questions. Why … do we need to wear masks to deal with COVID? Why do some people get sick with COVID and others do not? Why don’t we have enough masks available?

  • Narrowing Questions. How … are masks worn to be effective? How are masks made to be effective? How can masks be safely re-used? How can we make mask-wearing more convenient, comfortable, stylish? How can we assure that all front-line workers have mask protection?

  • Changing Perspective Questions. What … other alternatives are there for protecting front-line workers from COVID other than masks? What would be the impact of social distancing alone? What protection is needed after people receive their vaccine? What have we learned this past year about social compliance?

Now apply these to an ill-defined problem of your own – perhaps an ugly workaround.

  • Why. Why does this workaround exist? Why is this process even necessary?

  • How. How could we simplify this process? How could we meet the goal or need another way? How can we provide more value to the user (me and my colleagues, or a consumer or customer)?

  • What. What are the underlying causes of this workaround? What would the ideal situation look like? What struggles does this create for the customer? What are the current gaps related to the ideal state? What are the consequences of this problem? What alternatives are available?

Once you’ve gone through your series of questions, try writing a problem statement that identifies and describes the following:

  1. What the problem is and why it is a problem.

  2. Where the problem exists (the context).

  3. Who the problem impacts and how they are impacted.

  4. The overall impact of this problem.

Now you’re ready to write your problem statement. And once you’ve clearly defined the problem from your perspective, it’s time to have a conversation with others. Share your problem statement with those who are impacted by the problem, those potentially impacted by the downstream effects, and those with a diverse set of skills and perspectives. Listen and consider their input. Then revise your problem statement as needed based on the discussions. #ChannelTheEnergy


Celebrate your courage to question the status quo, define a problem and involve others in the process. Thus begins the journey of removing the stupid from your life and enabling freedom, creativity and choice. Way to go!



Titter Time:


“What if your pillow could record your dreams, and when you woke up you could plug it in to the computer and watch it back?” ~Author Unknown References:

Bettencourt, L. & Ulwick, A. (2013). The customer-centered innovation map. In HBR’s 10-Must Reads on Innovation. Boston, MA: HBR Press.

Lewrick, M., Link, P. & Leifer, L. (2018). The designing thinking playbook: Mindful digital transformation of teams, services, businesses and ecosystems. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Scott, K., Sarikas, B. & Bessler, C. (2020). Stupid gone viral – When science and reality collide. Great Britain: Rethink Press.

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