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The Most Important Thing That Great Innovators Do Differently

2016 November 13
by Greg Satell

I spent most of my adult life working in some of the world’s most challenging business environments. For 15 years, I managed and consulted for media businesses in places like Warsaw, Kyiv and Moscow. It was a difficult, but incredibly rewarding experience, both personally and professionally.

In time, I became adept at parachuting into a new market, learning the culture, learning the language and figuring out how to build a business. I was able to do so because I developed systems and processes for just about everything, from marketing and sales to operations and even crisis management.

Yet there was one thing I was never able to find a system for: innovation. It wasn’t for lack of effort. I studied many innovative people and organizations, but I found everyone I looked at did things very differently. Follow one and you defy another. Still, in my research I found one thing in common: Great innovators don’t just solve problems, they actively seek them out.

An Innovation Lab That Actually Works

Most companies try to avoid problems. Experian actually goes looking for them. In fact, it has set up a specific unit – Experian DataLabs — to actively seek out unresolved problems its customers are having and use them as a launchpad to pursue new opportunities and create new products.

“We regularly sit down with our clients and try to figure out what’s causing them agita, because we know that solving problems is what opens up enormous business opportunities for us,” Eric Haller, Global Head at Experian DataLabs, told me. Once they find a problem with potential, they can usually come back with a working prototype within 90 days.

Yet the problem solving doesn’t stop there. How should the new product work with other systems? What features are most useful? What customization options will the executives who use it everyday find helpful? What is the most effective user interface? These are all things that the DataLabs team works with the customer to iron out.

This isn’t a one-time thing but an ongoing, iterative process. The team of roughly 40 data scientists across three labs in the US, the UK and Brazil are usually working on about a dozen problems at any given time and, to date, they’ve rolled out nine products that have been taken over and scaled up by operational units within the greater organization.

With so many innovation labs failing, Experian DataLabs is clearly an exception. Yet notice how differently it operates. They don’t do market research or create nifty gadgets to show off to their customers. Its focus is to solve one problem for one customer at a time and then see if it can transform the solution into a viable product for the broader market.

A Passion For Figuring Things Out

As the son of a country doctor in Alice Texas, Jim Allison often went with his father on house visits, but it soon became clear to him that a doctor’s life wasn’t for him. “My father could never make mistakes, because when someone was sick they depended on him to make the right decisions,” he said. “I just liked figuring things out.”

So Jim decided he would be a scientist, so he could make as many mistakes as he needed to come up with an answer to an interesting problem. When he received PhD in Biochemistry in 1973, T-cells had just been discovered and he saw that there would be no shortage of stuff to figure out.  That’s what convinced him to go into immunology.

Allison spent the next few decades as a lab scientist and slowly began to unravel the mysteries of the immune system. He found that our bodies regulate our immune response with chemicals that tell it when to start, accelerate and stop, much like a car has an ignition switch, a gas pedal and a brake.

A big breakthrough came when he began to suspect that, in the case of cancer, our bodies may be applying the brake too soon. He thought that if he could switch off the brakes for a while, we might be able to fight cancer in a completely new and different way. As it turns out, he was right.

Today, Cancer Immunotherapy is thought by many to be a miracle cure. It has saved the lives of thousands of terminal patients who once would have no hope and Allison has won a Lasker Prize, a Breakthrough Prize and is considered to be a shoo-in to win a Nobel. Yet he didn’t have any of that in mind when he began his journey. He was just trying to figure things out.

Finding Computation In Nature

Charlie Bennett is one of those unusual minds that amazes just about everyone he meets. Somehow, he comes up with ideas that are so incredibly strange and counterintuitive, that they seem to be impossible, yet they still somehow turn out to be right. That was just what happened when, as a graduate student, he served as a teaching assistant for the eminent geneticist James Watson.

At the time, he decided to take a course about mathematical logic and the theory of computing, which introduced him to Alan Turing’s idea of a universal computer. It occurred to him that the concept of a Turing Machine and the how DNA processes biological code were remarkably similar. So began to suspect that nature itself could be a computer.

It was that problem that he decided to devote his life to and led him to a series of theoretical breakthroughs, such as his role in the development of quantum teleportation and his laws of quantum information. Today, Bennett is considered to be one of the founding fathers of a very obscure science called quantum information theory.

That all sounds hopelessly abstract — and it is — but it becomes much more meaningful when you realize that our advancement in current computer chip technology — often known as Moore’s Law — will grind to a halt in just five years or so. When that happens, quantum computing, the field Bennett helped create, will be crucial to further advancement.

Regaining The Spirit Of Exploration

If you read a typical article about how to be more innovative (like this one or this one), you’ll find plenty of clever sounding tips, like standing up during meetings, “turning ‘can’t’ into ‘can if’” and giving yourself constraints. If you hire a consultant, they might suggest you reorganize operations or do a special kind of brainstorming session.

However, in researching my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, I came across dozens of stories from every conceivable industry and field and it always started with someone who came across a problem they wanted to solve. Sometimes, it happened by chance, but in most cases I found that great innovators were actively looking for problems that interested them.

So if you want to make your organization more innovative or become more innovative yourself, the best thing you can do is go looking for good problems. Talk to customers. Follow a passion. Go and study a completely different subject. Travel. Take up a hobby. Do whatever it takes, but go out and find a problem that you can devote yourself to.

Revolutions don’t begin with a slogan. They begin with a cause.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Kenny permalink
    November 14, 2016

    Couldn’t agree with you any more on this topic. The single most important step with any idea is to concretely understand what problem you are solving. It sounds so simple, but in my experience of working with dozens of innovation teams, it is very difficult. We look at three things…1) what problem are you proposing to solve, 2) who/what will derive value from that problem being solved in such a way as to create authentic demand, and 3) what is the starting point of your solution to the problem. Once you have a solid hypothesis of those three things, you are ready to design experiments that test your guesses in order to turn ‘what you BELIEVE to be true’ into ‘that which you KNOW to be true’.

    Good article.

  2. November 14, 2016

    Thanks Kenny. Great points!

  3. November 14, 2016

    Hi Greg,

    So far I am seeing a lot of the right pieces coming together in your blogs.
    Couple of points:;;
    1. Yes – this is the time to realize Meg Wheatley’s paraphrased quote that “Small, insightful creative teams can indeed solve important problems. In truth that is the only way it ever happens”.
    2. Understanding the base cause of change gives great insight to opportunities to increase value and to innovate that most miss.
    3. We promote Value Creation and CVM – Customer Value Management as the right attitude and conscious view of needs, attitudes, resistance factors and going beyond the corporate limitations to help. It is simpler, natural and when enabled with AI, and social ecosystem scans…unbeatable.
    4. There are so many innovation management solutions that were designed by process engineers and now inflexible behemoths. Sure some are necessary when looking at IP and other complex solutions, but take a trained eye for empathy, creative, critical and systems thinking and what we see naturally puts those efforts to shame. Why not a mix?

    Look forward to your book. Remember so much of change is personal and value driven. Technologies that enable people that integrate more into one ecosystem will become the platforms of choice. What I worry about is how poorly education is lagging industry as traditional jobs will go to Robots and people will act like they never saw it coming.

  4. November 15, 2016

    Thanks Bill! btw. There will be a promotional price for my book in December, so that would be a good time to pick it up!

    – Greg

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