In previous articles I’ve described the Innovation Process of gurus like Clay Christensen and Peter Drucker (and my own), and a process for tapping the Wisdom of Crowds. Since then, I’ve talked to several business leaders about these processes, and they suggested I integrate them together to create a Creative Problem-Solving Process. The diagram above is the first draft of this CPS process.

It appears there may be as many as 12 steps in the process involved in solving problems or making critical decisions, whether in a business context or a broader social context. In most cases, many of these steps are side-stepped or short-circuited, often because the problem-solvers or decision-makers think they already have the information or perspective that doing them would provide. Perhaps this is why so many unimaginative solutions are developed and so many bad decisions are made?

The process of solving problems, when it’s undertaken thoroughly, can involve three different forms of interactivity (conversation, collaboration and canvassing), in engaging the energies of three different aggregations of people (individuals, teams, and ‘crowds’). The following table summarizes the 12 steps, and the interactivity, methods, deliverables and some facilitation tools for each:

Action Interactivity Methods Deliverables Some Tools
A Teach

Creativity Techniques,
Collaboration Skills
B. Listen

Continuous Scan,
Identified Needs,
Environmental Scanning,
Minto Fact-Based Research
C. Understand

Conversation Analysis
Root Causes
Root Cause Analysis,
Fishbone Diagrams
D. Organize
Solution Team,
Improvisational Plan
‘Getting Things Done’,
PKM, Improv
E. Think Ahead
Conversation Iteration
Future State Visions
Thinking-Ahead Process,
Future-State Visioning
F. Reach Out

Canvassing Engagement
Commitment, Attention,
Status Quo Dissatisfaction
‘ChangeThis’ Manifestos
G. Brainstorm
Solution Alternatives,
Innovation Culture
Accelerated Solutions
H. Survey
Canvassing Qualifying
Collective Wisdom,
Wisdom of Crowds process
I. Design
Rapid Prototyping,
Natural Design
J. Experiment

Collaboration Parallel Processing
Proof of Concept
True Collaboration Training
K. Challenge
Collaboration Questioning,
Critical Thinking
Solution Qualification,
Issues & Landmines
Seven Thinking Hats
L. Deploy

Canvassing Offering
Project Management,

Applying the process to a business problem:

Nash Instruments makes digital thermometers and other medical instruments for hospitals. They manufacture in Mississippi, taking advantage of low labour costs, but foreign competitors manufacturing in China have undercut them. The company is on the verge of bankruptcy, and 300 employees are depending on Nash’s ingenuity to reinvent their company to save their jobs.

So we start by teaching the core Solution Team of Nash the process, and creativity techniques so they can imagine a successful future for their company, not limited to incremental improvements. Then, with the Solution Team, we canvass customers and end-users of the company’s products and other similar instruments, and find out what untapped needs they have. We also study trends in the market, and scan across other industries, science, technologies, and nature, to surface new developments that might be adapted or applied to Nash’s products, processes, platforms, technologies, supply chain or distribution channels, core competencies, customer experience, brand, service or community wrap-arounds, or business model. Perhaps we discover that what customers are most unhappy with is the poor quality, ambiguity and reliability of these instruments — and that what customers want aren’t cheaper instruments, but simpler, more durable, more accurate ones. That they are buying the cheap ones made in China only because none of them differentiate themselves in other ways.

The third step is to analyze the root causes of the company’s current predicament. We know from the previous step that price really isn’t the differentiating factor that’s hurting the company’s sales, but why isn’t the company, with its skilled, domestic workforce, able to produce a better product? And are there other aspects to the undifferentiated ‘customer experience’, such as service quality? Or a distribution or marketing problem? Or lack of product diversity or innovation? Suppose we discover that the root problems are that the company has compromised on materials quality to try to reduce cost, that it’s slow to exploit new technologies, and that it has developed a reputation for unresponsive service. Once we know this, we refine the Solution Team, and develop the plan and timeline for solving the root problems.and meeting the untapped customer needs.

Then we conduct Thinking-the-Customer-Ahead sessions, using an iterative ‘what-if’ process to enable some of Nash’s most forward-thinking customers and potential customers to understand where their businesses, and instrumentation needs, are headed, which in turn allows Nash to craft a Future State Vision that satisfies those needs. Maybe we discover that the future of medical instrumentation is wireless, that displays are going to have to be flatter and sharper, that measurements in several medical technologies will need to be two orders of magnitude more precise, and that in some cases the tools will become so sophisticated that the instrument manufacturer will have to become part of the virtual medical team, on call 24/7 to assist in interpretation of the results.

And then we reach out to the larger constituency, all current and potential customers and end-users, articulating the promise that Nash could deliver and fomenting dissatisfaction with the status quo, creating a sense of urgency in the minds of customers and end-users, articulating the unmet need, and also creating that sense of urgency in Nash’s own people.

Next we do the creative work of inventing or reinventing products, processes, platforms, technologies, channels, brands, and even business models, and growing the core competencies needed to deliver on them. But we don’t put all our eggs in one basket: We develop a suite of alternative solutions. And then we use the Wisdom of Crowds process to present them to the ‘crowd’, as large a group of existing and potential customers and users and employees as possible, and use the crowd’s collective intelligence to help us select the best of these alternatives before taking them to market. Nash’s reputation is a problem — trying to go upscale with a new generation of sophisticated, precise instruments will be a marketing nightmare. maybe a whole new division with a new name is needed? And should the company try to overcome its employees’ near-total ignorance of how hospitals use its instruments, so they can offer virtual interpretation, or leave this niche to others? And should it overhaul its supply chain in favour of better-quality material suppliers, or even bring production of these materials in-house and cut out the middleman?

Now, with the confidence that we have the optimal solutions, we can design working prototypes of these solutions, and we can collaboratively run parallel experiments with different implementations of these solutions, failing fast and inexpensively to winnow out the implementations that don’t work in practice. How would wireless instruments avoid interference with, and from, other medical technologies in the operating room and on the patient’s night-table. What different techniques can be used to increase read-out precision without a commensurate increase in equipment cost? And when medical instruments need to be made in two ‘flavours’, one for sophisticated hospital use and the other for patients to self-diagnose and self-monitor, how do the price points differ and how should functionality and ease-of-use be traded off? Should Nash even be in both markets?

And then the implementations that succeed must pass the final hurdle, another collaborative process that encourages skeptical, critical thinking people in the organization to challenge whether this solution really is optimal, and unearth landmines and other problems the developers may not have thought about. Maybe the designers didn’t consider that baby-boomer patients’ eyes are weakening and the display in a new consumer product just isn’t large enough? Or that one of the new suppliers of a critical material is in financial difficulty?

Once the solutions have passed this final test, they’re ready for launch. The launch of dramatically new products, processes and technologies is a difficult process, and if not done properly and quickly can make an enormously promising innovation into a production or market failure. The launch needs careful project management, using a rigorous, tightly-controlled, one-step-at-a-time process.

It’s all common sense. The reason it is so rarely used is that few organizations have the competencies to do more than two or three of the 12 steps effectively. I’ve worked on all 12 steps at one point or another in my career, and they are not easy to master, but when they’re done well, they yield astonishing results. The answer, I think, isn’t just to bring in consultants to facilitate the process and then breeze out again. Advisers need to teach businesspeople how to do this for themselves, and then steward them through the process a couple of times to ensure they follow it properly. In a world where innovation will soon again be recognized as the only sustainable competitive business advantage, learning this process may the most important education for tomorrow’s business leaders.

And there’s no reason to believe this same process couldn’t be used to effectively address broader social, economic and environmental problems as well. I’ll explore that in a future article.

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  1. Gary says:

    I put another rather tongue in cheek Problem Solving Flow Chart on my blog, in response to yours. Hope you don’t mind.

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