Dealing with Hard Innovation Problems? The Passage of Time is no Guarantee of Progress


flying clock

I was early in my career serving as a design engineering manager for an industrial electronics firm.  We were working on a new product release that called for a major change to a key component in the product.  To accomplish this, we needed a globally compatible, high-wattage power supply that was lightweight (which meant we needed an industrial class switching power supply).  The specs were tough…and the team, which had expertise in the more conventional capacitor ferro technology, was struggling to meet the performance and reliability specs.  I was holding up releasing the design until we could get it right. Now time was up – and of course millions of dollars of orders were in backlog.

There are two kinds of waiting.  

The first involves completing a plan and knowing exactly what conditions you are waiting for before executing the strategy.  Steve Jobs was famous for this kind of waiting.  He shrewdly waited until AT&T had a deep need and cut a deal that no other handset maker could have during the iPhone introduction.  In another example, he realized that the key to the iPod business was going to be solving security to get access to the music industry catalog. Then he carefully put in place a deal for the iTunes store before launching the device.

I was displaying the second kind of waiting.That is, waiting for the team to have a moment of clarity that will lead to a breakthrough.  It was my unspoken hypothesis that some unseen next event would allow us to become confident and release the design.  The logjam was broken when one of our senior staff engineers secured the resume of a true expert in the switching power supply world. In a short amount of time, this person was able to come aboard, find numerous concerns and design issues and get us back on track.

This article is a follow up to this piece, in which I introduced the five ways firms put off or unintentionally delay real results.  We talked about how these are rooted in our unconscious biases towards work that is lower in risk, less complex and without conflict.   By becoming unwitting victims to these patterns of thinking, real benefits end up getting deferred from what appears to be perfectly logical decisions.

The truth was that no amount of delay was going to create the clarity we needed to move forward with confidence – and that one lesson has served me (and now my clients) well for years.  What I needed to know in that moment was that we were not lacking in talent, but rather that we lacked talent with the specific experience to quickly put in place framework, vocabulary, design margins and reliability.  In retrospect, I was expecting a huge shift, and now know that the likelihood of that happening was very small.

Why Does This Happen?

Really hard problems and issues in our organizations are complex, multi-layered problems, and as teams get used to solving them in the areas that they do have experience in, it is easy to assume that with time a breakthrough in thinking will occur that will allow us to move forward in adjacent areas, as well.  This subtle confidence creates an invincibility bias…just give us enough time and effort and we can do whatever we set our minds to.  

Additionally, we want to trust the internal team, so we tend to downplay the ability of someone outside your group to be able to provide meaningful help.  In groups that are used to being able to lean any way and find a way through, it is easy to assume that success is right around the corner.

What we aren’t seeing is that with the “map” we are currently using and our track record of success, we’re being blinded to the depth of the issue which lies just outside our zone of competence.

What You are Really Waiting For

When you can step back and think about it objectively, we’re trying to bring the words attributed to Einstein to life:

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Solving tough issues that block innovation deployment nearly always bring the quote above to life.  Why?  By definition, when we work on innovation projects, we are bringing things to life that are new to our firm – and many times new to the market.  If there were experts in the space, it wouldn’t be innovation.

Saddling our internal teams with the full burden, we are expecting them to come up with a new way of thinking, structure for discussion and framework for implementation.  No wonder we get stuck.

The Antidote

The good news is that these issues typically yield to a three-step process of setting context, obtaining key external resources and finally integration.  

In the first step of setting context, we simply get everything we know about the issue on the table with the help of someone who hasn’t lived in our group.  If you are in a larger firm, you can use a process made famous by the military of “red team-blue team,” and borrow a resource or two from another development team to help build this perspective.

Regardless of how we get the external resource, we need to leave our pride at the door.  We use a skilled problem solver, and give them license to ask what are sometimes labeled as “dumb questions.”  These are foundational questions that we may have surfed over in the initial work, that many times hold the key to moving forward.  When this stage is complete, we have a much more complete picture of what is vexing us and the foundational gaps embedded in the issue.  Many times this alone is enough to unlock the group.

The second step is to actively seek information from outside of the firm relevant to the gaps we identified.  Most firms have way more information internally than they realize, so I coach this as step one.  Map a 360 degree view of where the information might come from and don’t forget partners, distributors and staff leaders in HR, Legal and Finance.

When those sources are exhausted, do some external work. The highest value info will come from the edges.  What I mean is to use at least two sources, deep subject matter experts and network your way to a couple of non-traditional sources. These might include think tanks, not for profits and others who have solved hard problems in adjacent industries.

Pro Tip: Be sure to schedule breaks for the team.  A surprising number of breakthroughs occur at a play, concert or on the sidelines of that soccer match.  Give you mind time to breath.

You may think that once you have the “nugget” of information, the solution is at hand.  This is a big (and common) error, as insight without application does not move your team forward.

The third step is to integrate the first two and move forward.  This is frequently where serious breakthroughs occur.  Information rarely shows itself in “ready to execute” plans and actions.  To build these bridges you need to assemble “real” cross-functional teams (see posts here and here) and not just committees.  Forging the connections between insights and application is where the real intellectual property and breakout products come from.

At a high level, you are doing two things in this step.  To drive the breakthrough into application you need to use what is frequently called both/and thinking.  You step into the gap between your problem and the Step One map and Step Two map.  By using cycles of separating and connecting you forge a new solution that your firm can support, that solves the issue.

To come full circle with the example I opened with, the new outside resource was far from the full solution.  We needed to use the full process, have the courage and authenticity to fight like family and collaborate to give birth to a new to us and in this case new to the world solution that solved the immediate problem.  In doing that, we laid a foundation for a platform of high reliability products that had a long and profitable life.

If you think you have fallen into this pattern of deferral, don’t beat yourself up as all of us have been there a time or two.  If you have a really thorny issue that is seriously impacting a valuable project, I’d be honored to help.  To get started on that journey, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.

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