Navigate ‘Unsolvable’ Problems

by David Dotlich 

right-answerInnovation. It’s a buzzword that’s so overused it’s tough to understand what it really means and how to capture its elusive spirit. We know we need more of it as businesses are increasingly challenged to produce an outcome that achieves seemingly irreconcilable goals, but we often receive conflicting advice on how to achieve it. When anyone tackles the topic of innovation, the name Steve Jobs inevitably comes up. He’s the prime example of an executive who staked his career on solving complex problems by answering them with “none of the above.” (Interestingly, he violated almost all the usual principles of “good” leadership — he was said to be dictatorial, volatile and controlling.)  He was most famous for taking the viewpoint that Apple should never ask customers what they want, because they don’t know what’s possible. Fifteen years ago, no one would have asked for an iPhone or an iPad, but Steve Jobs created completely new technology categories worth billions, leaving competitors far behind.

Executives in a small business or a Fortune 500 company, alike, in order to innovate must not deny problems that seemingly have no clear answer. These problems are not straightforward like mathematical equations or puzzles that have neat and clean answers. The challenges that we most often tackle are, instead, paradoxical in nature, having two or more competing alternatives that can never be fully resolved. Paradoxes are seemingly everywhere — the conflicting goals of short-term returns vs. long-term investments, or recognizing individual customer needs while maintaining equitable policies. Yet, if managed well, these polar opposites are often the source of real innovation.

Most executives make one of two mistakes when faced with these issues. Either they are so daunted by the problem they deny it or, worse, put off making a decision. Or they look for the most straightforward “right” answer. Making that clear decision might feel good — providing a sense of closure — but that elation is short lived. Why? Because paradoxical issues are more like a road to be navigated than a problem to be solved.

Instead of an either/or debate, leading executives open up the door of possibility and seek unorthodox approaches. “Do consumers want a better Walkman or a more capable FM radio?” is an example of a choice that drove creation of the iPod. Answering “both” or “neither” can be the start of the innovative process and is the true core of creating and nurturing a culture of innovation. Decisions can sometimes deceptively look like a fork in the road, but what if one could fly? Other questions can be asked, such as, “What’s a new way to accomplish our purpose and make it a win-win for everyone?”

Here are three ways a leader can embed an innovation mindset in his or her organization:

Mark the playing field clearly.  Dreaming big is an imperative, but then reality hits when the ideas suggested are simply impossible. It’s like trying to square a circle. Instead, clarify limitations at the outset regarding time, people, corporate values, money required, acceptable risks, and what related decisions are set in stone. Then, let the ideas fly.

Build the pressure by asking, “What Else?” A problem stands in the way of a desired outcome. Push the team to go beyond the familiar to seek out relationships that have never been identified or solutions that have never been attempted.

Release the creative energy flow. Open up the discussion with collaborators by encouraging and rewarding outrageous ideas. Recognize the most creative thinkers with the “Giraffe Award,” because they took the risk to stick their necks out. This not only rewards creative thinking but also helps remove people’s natural fear of failing, looking dumb or retribution. After all, some of the best ideas come from the most outlandish and unexpected places. But they will always remain hidden unless someone has the courage to speak up.

If you try to employ an innovation mindset, then it will feel much more like you’re driving bumper cars than running trains on the tracks. When you’re comfortable with taking a circuitous route by inventing more and divergent options, then you just might find that transformative idea to not only forward your career, but also transform your business.  

David Dotlich is chairman and CEO of Pivot Leadership, a strategic leadership consulting firm that works with companies such as Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Microsoft, Ericsson, Aetna and Lloyds. The Unfinished Leader: Balancing Contradictory Answers to Unsolvable Problems is his 11th book on leadership. 

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