Leading problem solving and innovation 

A few of us probably remember the ‘power management’ phrase of the 90’s, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”, where teams or individuals were discouraged from presenting problems to management but instead sent away to fix an issue and only return to reassure management that it had been resolved. 

Instead of promoting a more independent style of problem solving – where people are empowered to think through and implement solutions – it has become clear that this is yet another over-simplification of effective leadership and management, engineered to reduce the management burden of constantly solving everyone else’s problems. Implicit in the message is firstly, “don’t waste my time” and secondly, “I have an expectation of you, are you up to it?”.  

This ‘command and control’ style of leadership and management has its drawbacks. Leaving people to go it alone not only impacts focus and motivation, but it can stifle creativity, innovation and constructive problem solving.  It also lacks a facilitative approach to leadership, whereby people or teams collaborate to tackle specific, often complex issues. 

Organisations can struggle to thrive and grow with a ‘command and control’ mindset 

What is the problem? 

It’s important to distinguish what is meant by problem solving. We’re not looking at it through the lens of science and art – major breakthroughs, creative campaigns or ‘big ideas’ – we’re focusing on solving issues or pursuing opportunities that will have an impact on business performance.   

Within a design, engineering or creative environment, solving problems and delivering innovation is second nature; it’s their reason for being. However, for organisations outside of these industries, especially areas such as professional services, the idea of leading innovation may not be so clear cut but it’s still a crucial component or driver for change and growth. 

Innovation comes from establishing new viewpoints or disruptive thinking to help frame a problem in new or different ways. This is an important factor for continuous growth and something all businesses can and should be doing.  We look at the key components to help create and drive an environment that welcomes problems, solutions and innovation. 

Step one: Problem identification and definition

Create an open forum for teams to present the problem or problems. To genuinely innovate, it’s important to create a climate and framework that invites discussion and opinion. 

The problem needs to be presented, discussed, made clear and nailed down at this stage. As a result, it’s important to be objective in this process. Ask yourself, what business performance impact are we addressing? Are we looking for preventative, vitamin-like solutions or pain-relieving remedies? 

Sometimes it’s hard to see the problem; it can be fuzzy, which is why taking a more impartial and holistic approach may help pinpoint the issue. 

Innovation comes from establishing new viewpoints or disruptive thinking to help frame a problem in new or different ways 

Step two: Ideation and evaluation 

Facilitating the creative process does not require the person leading this to be the creative one, but to ensure there is sufficient space and time for full ideation, it’s important people work together to define potential solutions to the problem.  This needs to be done objectively and in a ‘safe’ environment that encourages free thinking.  Better yet, those who are competent to identify each participant’s value and unique creativity may be able to capitalise on the best ideas often – much like the conductor in an orchestra bringing together everyone’s contribution.  

The ideation stage should provide a range of possible solutions because it is the chance to welcome disruptive thinking and creativity.  It is important that participants in this process aren’t rushed to a quick decision but are led through an objective evaluation of proposed solution, including the freedom to be inquisitive without being judged, to select the most viable options, or tailor interesting solutions that have potential – but may be flawed.   

Step three: Planning and implementing change 

Once a solution has been selected, it is then important to make sure all stakeholders are clear on the change ahead, what is expected and how it will happen. 

We have previously written and spoken about how to effectively make change happen but it’s worth thinking through the context of your chosen path, inspiring stakeholders with a vision of what could be possible on the other side of change and involving the right people to ensure alignment on the journey required. 

Leading problem solving and innovation: in practice 

When we work with businesses going through technology-driven change, we observe a common approach to selecting new technology based on addressing issues presented by the current solution (or lack of).  In other words, businesses often making strategic decisions in light of tactical issues. 

Instead of looking at how new software ‘fixes’ problems presented by the current software, a more diligent review process would take you back to the real-life business problem or objective and define what the requirements are from that perspective. 

One of our clients regularly uses the phrase “what problem are we trying to solve?” and by asking that, he isn’t looking for the symptoms or superficial problems of an existing solution; he is trying to understand “what business issue do we have that we need to address?” or “what are we trying to achieve that requires a new solution?”.  The purpose of this approach is to establish whether there is something that actually needs time and effort to resolve, and if so, to define it with enough specificity to be able to address the issue. 

This client is constantly reframing and asking for problem definition to encourage creative and/or disruptive thinking, subsequently looking for a range of potential solutions to be tabled and evaluated based on business value rather than a limited perception of costs and benefits. 

Is a new, like-for-like system really necessary?  What are the range of specific problems that are shared across the business?  What problems are localised within a single or few areas of the business?  Do different parts of the business need different solutions (do they have different needs?) or could a single solution be sufficient for all users?  Is it realistic to look for a single solution to a range of business problems or could a range of different solutions work best? 

From these questions and more, potential solutions are identified that can be objectively evaluated against intended business outcomes rather than subjective judgements.  Whilst this won’t eliminate the complexity of subsequent change, it will form a helpful basis for both stakeholder management and implementation. 

Historically, innovation has seen many a business change direction or pivot. Western Union dominated the communications and telco space for decades, until smartphones took over. Instead of resisting the smartphone problem, Western Union saw innovation and opportunity through digital money transfers and mobile wallets. They now dominate this market, globally.  

We attribute our staying power and ability to reinvent ourselves to our innovation culture and openness to new ideas
Jeff Hochstadt, chief strategy and development officer, Western Union

Western Union is also a good example of a business that innovates in a space that is not traditionally known for innovation. Besides the invention of the fax machine, they sent their last telegram in 2006 over 100 years after dominating this space. They could have effectively shut their doors, but instead, disrupted traditional thinking to survive alongside major innovators. 

In summary: key points on problem solving and leading innovation 
  • Ensure the problem is clearly identified, defined and properly understood. 
  • Create time and the right environment for colleagues to identify potential solutions. 
  • Evaluate solutions diligently against the problem identified. 
  • Plan and implement change, with confidence knowing that the problem and solution have sufficient objectivity and definition. 

If you’re looking to develop your leadership capability in problem solving and innovation or focus on more effective change management programmes, then we can support your business.  We work with a range of organisations to develop effective leaders and organisations, as well as publishing a range of resources and guides to help your business. 

Why not get in touch?