In The Innovation Game, The Best Ideas Start With The Right Problem

Pete Newell

June 14, 2022

Tech entrepreneurs would be wise to stop talking about potential solutions before first focusing on understanding the problem. Years as a wartime military officer and a Silicon Valley innovator taught me that taking a problem for granted is the most common point of failure for startups, companies, or commanders. Most problems I encounter are either wrong in the first place, or too misaligned with the pace of emerging technology to be solved within the next 3-5 years. We need to get to a place where we can put all our attention on the issues we can fix here and now.

In a recent conversation I had with SuperCreativity podcast host James Taylor, we sifted through ways to get this mindset neatly woven into the modern innovator’s thinking. It’s a fast-paced, tech-saturated era; the last thing we need to do is spin our wheels or drive at dead ends. Below are some key takeaways from our conversation, along with the timestamps to listen in.

Crisis Breeds Creativity (1:48)

People in crisis are the most efficient innovators. Because of a sense of urgency, they are willing to grab whatever they have on hand and adapt it to meet their mission’s needs. The streets of Kyiv right now are a great example, as people defend their homes, neighborhoods, city and country.

Creative innovators can look at things that were intended for a radically different purpose and combine them into something that actually does something quite different. Whether it’s taking old tech and mixing it with new to perform a completely different operation, or dreaming up something wholly innovative to solve a problem, the creativity that comes from desperation or urgency achieves the acceleration modern startups dream of. That laser-like focus on the critical problem at hand, and understanding that problem on the granular level, enables fast innovation like this. The challenge can be how startups get to that urgent focus and attention, to that depth of understanding. 

The Lean Startup (3:19)

The Lean methodology forces you to do iterative customer discovery, and this is critical to knowing the problem you’re trying to solve. When I was the head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, working to rapidly solve Soldiers’ problems on the battlefield, the first honest conversation I had with somebody about the problem they asked me to solve didn’t happen until I handed them a potential solution. At that point, we started talking about what the problem really was. Looking at a possible solution, they could vocalize their real expectations. This is the process of creating an MVP, or “minimally viable product” and getting the first best, fastest thing you can find into somebody’s hands to drive a conversation. Our speed was due to our ability to discover new and emerging problems and curate them into workable solutions.

Curation Process (5:39)

When problems change faster than we can produce solutions it’s time to step back and ask if this is the right problem to solve in the first place. We have learned in our work that many entrepreneurs were loading their innovation systems with problems that were ill-formed, didn’t necessarily address the problem and weren’t prioritized. Solving something because the loudest voice in the room says to isn’t always the best course for speedy innovation; rather, it clogs the pipeline.

Every problem worth solving needs three things: someone who provided the problem that is experiencing the problem firsthand; a senior leader champion who has the authority, budget, and will to do something; and an expert on the problem who has been in the role long enough to understand it thoroughly, and who plans to stay long enough to see implementing a solution through. 

Creating a culture for innovation within the services (20:22)

There is no process to grow or retain innovative talent within the DoD or government organizations. Being an innovator or an entrepreneur is not a job title inside large organizations. These talents tend to get chased away, and that passion and excitement goes with them.

To fill this devastating void, at BMNT we developed a suite of tools to support the existing workforce and their leaders. We run mission acceleration programs inside larger organizations that mirror our Hacking 4 Defense academic courses, only more compressed and far more intense. The organization is then able to prioritize, streamline, and send certain efforts to the back burner or burn pile. They start to produce innovative ideas based on this process.

This is important for young creative minds within organizations, too. We have to try to chip away at the patriarchal mindset that young people have to “do their time,” when what they really want to do is innovate at speed. Secondly, we’re helping bureaucracies understand that getting things wrong yields the best solution for something else, and that’s a big change for a government bureaucracy mindset.

The Three Horizons Model, reimagined (10:39)

We want to help people understand the different levels of focus of innovation from tactical to systematic, and prioritize accordingly. Is it, in the words of the McKinsey model, Horizon 1: an incremental change to improve efficiency in the current system; Horizon 2: something that will change the current system; or Horizon 3: something that will make the current system go away? If we want to innovate at speed, we must add Horizon zero: don’t do it. Identify early that this is outside the scope of what you should be doing and don’t touch it.

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