The Starting Point for Challenge Led Innovation

November 21st, 2019

Great ideas are only truly great when they are developed into a new product or service and adopted at scale. This is innovation. Most of us can come up with a bright idea and may even develop it further, but the value comes when someone sees the benefit of using it to solve their problem.

In very simple terms, all innovation could be considered to be challenge-led, that is, the development of a new product or service in response to a need that someone is experiencing. However, what this implies is that innovation is only fostered when you take a blank sheet of paper, you scope out a particular need in detail and a solution is designed to meet that need. This is the model we see used for hack days or the trigger for many design sprints.
The model for challenge-led innovation or open-innovation is clear:
(1) define the problem
(2) look for existing solutions and/or expertise to respond to the challenge
(3) hone the findings in (2), identifying solution providers or partners
(4) pitch the solution to challenge owners
(5) test it

This is one important approach, but having led numerous challenge-led innovation programmes, I know this simplifies the starting point of the innovation process.

Not only can problems be tricky to define well, but great solutions often arise when you first expose the challenge owners, the people who have the need for a solution, to the art of the possible. It is not necessary for the person with the challenge to be the one that solves it in this model. What I am encouraging here is that the subject matter experts who are immersed in their challenges regularly, often require a taster of seeing what is possible through the application of technologies in other sectors.

When I worked in the NHS, I took a group of senior clinicians (nurses, doctors and therapists) to a manufacturing research facility. The only aim of the visit was to see what was possible in terms of diversifying the applications of technology from one environment to another. We saw how companies who previously only machined precision parts for cars could adapt what they do to create pins and levers for replacement joints. It was actually irrelevant whether the clinicians had an interest in orthopaedics and joints, the point was showing how machines could be adapted to allow precision engineering to support new sectors. The lesson was about appreciating other industries may have the capability to solve challenges for healthcare. The art of the possible was real. I recall reading about how the Williams Formula One team had been assisting the neonatal unit at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff by bringing pitstop know-how to help in the resuscitation of newborn babies. Innovation development is not confined to physical products and software.

The main reason for showcasing what is possible in a variety of sectors to people and organisations outside those industries is that it allows them to stop dismissing unmet needs as impossible to solve. The danger is that when we are faced with problems that, in our sphere of knowledge, appear impossible to solve, we often don’t share them or define them as being worthwhile to explore. If you approach an organisation like the NHS and ask them what their biggest needs and challenges are, they may well filter out the tricky stuff that they believe cannot be solved. Exposing these people to possibility will help them to remove that filter.

My belief, therefore, is that challenge-led innovation has two starting points:
(1) the articulation of an unmet need or challenge and
(2) the step before, exposing professionals to the art of the possible to more readily share previously dismissed unmet needs

For completeness, not all innovation development will start with the challenge statement being clear. Instead of innovation being challenge-led, it can also be technology-led. I have further examples of introducing digital technology and device companies to open-minded NHS clinicians who have then gone on to collaborate with them. The clinicians will admit that on these occasions they would have never proactively gone out to seek a solution to the particular challenge being solved. However, once they had an opportunity to understand an emerging technology, they could see some immediate applications in their area of expertise. Then, this is when I could see a flip from innovation push (a solution being offered up to the sector) to innovation pull (the person with an unmet need championing the solution into their sector). This flip is the secret to most successful innovation, that pivot point when the value of a technology is appreciated and mountains are moved to support its successful development, adoption and scale.

Whether supporting a challenge led or technology-led innovation process, leading a programme to the point of innovation pull is the difference that makes the difference.

If you are working in areas where your colleagues find it hard to identify unmet challenges, be mindful they may be filtering them out as too tricky to solve. Expose them to examples of innovative practice and diversification in other sectors, to start removing the barriers to possibility.

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