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By David Quinlan

Imagine an iceberg floating in the middle of the sea. Above the surface sits the impressive tip and rugged edges. What you do not see is what rests below the surface – a massive glacier with peaks and valleys and mass that comprises 90 percent of the entire body.

Defining a problem is like an iceberg. Many organizations make the mistake of trying to fix what they can see above the surface and ignore the root of a problem that sits below the surface.

Just like an iceberg, the deeper we go into the world of innovation, the more we discover. And as leaders, it’s our job to find the truth and identify a problem for what it really is versus what we think it is.

Sounds deep, but this simple truth has become a guiding principle for the Innovators Academy cohort at Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific (BBB NW+P). Five months into the academy, our teams have generated more than 5,000 ideas and uncovered nearly $1 million in waste, inefficiencies and duplicated processes. Some ideas are above the surface and directly within eyeshot, and just like the iceberg suggests, much of it is not.

At this pivotal stage of innovation, we as a cohort now change our focus from identifying a problem to defining it.

Define, define, define

So how does Innovators Academy recommend you define a problem beyond just pointing out obvious symptoms? 1) Continue to ask questions. 2. Look at problems differently. 3) Accept the fact that no single problem exists in isolation.

Here’s how that looks for our cohort: During the define phase, our teams used a 7-step process to help generate, evaluate and prioritize a problem opportunity facing the organization. We then deployed our teams to go back out and talk with customers, employees and users to help us define the problem and ask whether it’s worth solving. How we answer that question will depend on what we uncover and whether the issue is simply at the tip of the iceberg or manifesting into something bigger below the surface.

Innovation is an economy

Innovation is an economy, and ideas are currency. As soon as you run out of currency, the economy fails. We talked about this in our last blog – on how we as an organization need to continue to ideate. The same holds true during the define stage of innovation. Utilizing different tools and data sets, the ideas we are now generating are hyper-focused on solving core problem opportunities.

This allows us to formulate a solution structure and ultimately a business case. Without nerding out too much, this process is lengthy and requires ideating, defining vision, creating a strategy and outlining detailed delivery methods. The goal? To still churn out ideas or currency, create value and come up with a solution to a high impact and larger problem.

Value creation starts with structure

For you project managers out there – where would we be without processes? As noted in the Innovators Advantage, there are several processes and tools to help us through this journey. Without them, innovation would not be sustainable.

Evans Baiya, author and business consultant who is leading the academy, describes the innovation journey as a science. On one hand, you have unpredictable and opportunistic ideas that may sound off the wall or even unrealistic. On the other hand, you need disciplined and effective processes to vet ideas and define problems. And while it sounds simple on paper, simple isn’t easy – nor is finding the sweet spot.

Evans explains that 35%-45% of businesses fail when it comes to innovation because it is unable to effectively transition between the different stages. Set processes and structure prevents that failure from happening.

Let’s recap

  • BBBNW+P enters the second stage of innovation: Define.
  • Treat problems like a symptom and work to find the real root cause.
  • Problems exist in isolation.
  • Value creation starts with structure.
  • Innovation is science.

Remember, innovation is creating value. So, when we solve problems, ideate and build in structure, we are creating value.

BBB NW+P has a long way to go down the innovators’ journey. Today we are at a defining moment transitioning from one stage to the next and tackling real problems that ultimately could affect the entire organization.

When will we get there? Find out next time!