Innovation: Creating vs. Problem Solving

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I was recently engaged to facilitate an “innovation discussion” between a client’s cross-functional innovation team and an insightful team of people from one of their customers. I failed miserably.

Don’t get me wrong; it was a valuable interchange. My client learned an incredible amount about their customers’ (mostly implicit) business drivers, about the real-world constraints of their particular business, about the seemingly intractable problems they had. Their customers learned new ways to think about and to solve some of their operations’ problems. Both teams bonded and agreed to continue working together closely on mutually beneficial projects. The customers were grateful for the opportunity to step back from daily operations and think more strategically. My client will no doubt win more business from this account. My client’s top execs gained a shared, holistic understanding of their customer’s operating environment. Everyone enjoyed themselves. Not a bad outcome for 5 hours of guided conversation.

But, as the clients’ surfaced their issues and the group discussed ways to “solve” those issues, and we identified and unpacked their criteria for success, I knew that we weren’t (yet) creating the structure that leads to true innovation.



They left to play golf. I hopped on a plane. Perhaps a brainstorm hit at the 9th hole. I may never know.

Dogs Are Great Problem-Solvers, Too

My dog, Benjie, poised to round up a bunch of sticks as soon as I throw them into the water.

My dog, Benjie, poised to round up a bunch of sticks as soon as I throw them into the water.

Human beings love to solve problems. But so does my dog. His favorite games are puzzles. If he has to figure out how to get the treat out of the thingamajig, or how to find the lost ball in a thicket of weeds, or how to pick up, not one stick, but five sticks thrown randomly around the pond, he’s thrilled! His tail wags enthusiastically and non-stop.

Innovation is different. Innovation doesn’t arise out of problem-solving, but out of creativity. It takes you to a different place. In industry, innovation often involves different business models, different materials, different processes, different disciplines. Typically, the “problem” doesn’t get solved; it vanishes. It doesn’t show up. It’s no longer relevant.

Understanding the Creative Process. I first learned the principles of the creative process from Robert Fritz when I was in my mid-20s. A jazz musician, Robert Fritz distilled creativity to a repeatable process when he taught composition at the New England Conservatory of Music and discovered that many gifted musicians couldn’t compose music. They could be taught the required elements in a musical composition, but they couldn’t find their muse. So Robert set himself the goal of understanding, and being able to teach, the creative process. Once he succeeded, he, and his students, have applied these principles in all walks of life.



Here is how the creative process works:

The Creative Process

The Creative Process

  • Create a compelling VISION of the results that you want. This includes the feelings you’ll have when you realize the vision, as well as the material properties of the realized vision, and your criteria for success. This vision isn’t words on paper. It’s feelings, emotion, and energy. It’s often best captured as a picture. It’s how your future reality would look and feel once realized.
     
  • Create a clear, objective picture of your current reality. What’s the current situation (not how do you do presently do things, but what results are you achieving)? How are you feeling about that current reality? What current thoughts are creating those feelings? (Hint: Identify them and let them go). What resources do you have at hand? The more complete and objective your perception is of your current reality, the better.
     
  • Notice the discrepancy between your compelling vision and your objective current reality. Hold that discrepancy. Cherish it. Don’t let it create anxiety or frustration—that’s psychological tension. It gets in the way. This discrepancy between your vision and your current reality creates the structural tension from which creativity arises. Reinforce your structural tension by refreshing your vision and continuously examining your current reality. If you lower your vision, or obfuscate your current reality, you lose the structural tension and become disempowered.

Creating Structural Tension with a Group of Co-Creators

This creative process works for individuals, families, teams, communities, with any group of people who are committed to doing what it takes to achieve their shared vision. You can use various techniques to flesh out your shared vision and to create a full, objective picture of your current reality.

Once you’re holding that collective structural tension, you can ideate all kinds of new ways to realize your vision. You can experiment, prototype, create and adjust, or go take a walk or play golf and wait for inspiration to strike.

But unless and until you create BOTH a shared vision and an accurate representation of your current reality, and create and hold that shared structural tension, you’ll be problem solving—just like my dog happily hunting for a ball in a patch of weeds.



Examples of Creative Innovation in Action

Here are some examples of innovation vs. problem-solving:

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