Is the innovation hype masking a deeper problem?

Is innovation masking problem solving?

While everyone is busy trying to innovate, is there a risk that we’re missing something of far greater significance to business, government and professionals alike? I think so.

Australia was better shielded from the global financial crisis than many nations. Despite this, economic growth since has been sluggish. While global growth is returning, notably in Europe and to a lesser extent the USA, it’s patchy and its benefits are not distributed evenly.

Elizabeth Proust, Chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors observes that “we are dealing with stagnating productivity growth and an economy in transition from  the latest resources boom. Innovation-led growth is essential to our prosperity” [1].

Motivated by this need to improve productivity, drive growth, regain trust and avoid disruption, businesses and governments are exploring new services, products and business models. Rapidly evolving technologies are enabling and fueling these changes, but again their adoption is variable presenting threats and opportunities.

Everyone’s talking innovation

Central to realising better services, products and delivery models is innovation. Businesses and governments alike are busy talking the innovation talk, to investors, suppliers, citizens and customers. Often this involves human-centred design or design thinking. To build understanding and capability within their ranks, organisations are appointing innovation leaders, punching out innovation articles, sponsoring idea competitions and training staff.

Unfortunately, the innovation ‘discussion’ is often confusing. To some it appears to be all about ‘start-ups’. At the same time, large consultancies promote digital-led innovation, and government focuses on commercialisation of research. Little distinction is made between process, product, programmatic and business model innovation. So, it all becomes a confusing blur, dismissed by the confused or cynical as the latest fad that too shall pass.

Survival of the most adaptive

Of course, innovation in business – the application of ideas to create value – is relevant and necessary and always has been. It’s arguably been the factor that’s decided which organisations are most adaptive, thus surviving and thriving, and which fail. Two factors, however, make innovation more important today than ever: (a) the cumulative power of digital technologies, and (b) globally inter-connectedness.

These factors mean that competitors can emerge from anywhere, quickly. This is as true for government as it is for business … and, increasingly, for individual professionals.

But is the focus on innovation (and design thinking) masking a deeper issue for organisations and professionals? Ask yourself: what deficiency is innovation meant to redress? And, why does that deficiency exist?

Problem Solving vs innovation and design thinking

Isn’t it just problem solving?

Take a moment to compare and contrast innovation and design thinking processes with that of problem solving. They have many similarities. This is because innovation, for example, is a more specific class of problem solving, perhaps placing greater emphasis on customers or end-users of products and services. Yet in reality these processes are not materially different. Indeed, many innovation tools actually drive analysis more than ideas. Why? Because innovative solutions often emerge when gaps in insight are filled and better questions are posed, rather than through moments of sheer inspiration.

So, what is “innovation” actually addressing? The answer is a general deficiency in problem solving capability.

We needn’t look far for evidence of this weakness in government or private enterprise. Think of any persistent public problem, corporate collapse or misdemeanor. More particularly, think of any issue in your own workplace that should be resolved but seems to persist.

Professionals seek familiar problems

Many professionals would feel affronted by any suggestion their problem-solving skills are under-developed. But professionals are trained to solve particular types of problem, which in practice often follows a fairly formulaic path. For example, in listening to clients, consultants are often seeking out the type of problem they are comfortable solving rather than for the client’s real needs.

In reality, far too few people have been equipped to solve problems in general, let alone the complex problems that are pervasive today.

Even in fields where rigour in problem solving would be expected, like medical research, evidence suggests otherwise. About “85% of health research is wasted, usually because it asks the wrong questions, is badly designed, not published or poorly reported …many causes of this waste are simple problems that could easily be fixed” [2]. Even if this is overstated by a factor of ten, the annual opportunity cost is measured in billions of dollars.

Problem solving is an essential job skill

It comes as no surprise then that problem solving ranks at the top of the list of skills business leaders require from current and prospective employees in order to sustain organisational success [3].

This is not to say that innovation isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s essential. But to overlook the more general need for all staff and professionals to solve problems well ignores a massive productivity and thus prosperity opportunity.

Thus, organisations of all types would be well served to develop their problem solving skills, while reflecting on what has contributed to the pervasive weakness in this capability. Indeed, it might be the first and most important problem to solve!


[1] Elizabeth Proust (2017) Board innovation, In: Company Director, Vol. 33, Issue 7, August 2017

[2] Chalmers, Iain et al. (2009) Avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence, The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9683, pp 86-89

[3] World Economic Forum (2016) The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Global Challenge Insight Report, Geneva.