Unconventional Success

Problem Solving

How is it possible that IdeaConnection is able to put together a team of 5 people who don’t know each other to solve a problem that seems out of reach to a company’s 5000 dedicated researchers?

A look at what goes into IdeaConnection’s amazing success at solving some of the most difficult problems.  By Paul Wagorn, President of IdeaConnection. 

Innovate or die

Most medium to large sized companies bear an unrelenting pressure to continually release new products to fill market gaps, build up their technology pipelines and maintain a constant flow of new, proprietary intellectual property.

Unfortunately, exciting technologies with massive market potential can fail before they even make it to market.   This is often due to seemingly unsolvable critical path problems, imperfect technology or lack of technical resources to find a solution to whatever is keeping the technology from making it to the next stage gate.

These problems hinder many great products that could otherwise be successful, and abandoning these technologies due to unsolved problems costs businesses billions of dollars in missed opportunities and sunk R&D investments.

Finding solutions

IdeaConnection takes on many of these difficult technical challenges, by building a handful of multidisciplinary teams made up of 5 experts each, pitting teams against each other to solve these problems.  The results speak for themselves – IdeaConnection successfully solves these complex problems for some of the largest companies in the world at an exceptional rate of success.

How can a team of 5 people, who have all just met each other, and who have no intimate connection with the company or problem’s history, solve a problem when a company with thousands of researchers has failed – sometimes for years?  To many, this sounds implausible.

The answer lies in this:  Much like the story of David and Goliath, what makes large companies very strong is also the source of their greatest weakness.

What is wrong with innovation in large companies?

In a mature corporation, efforts are put towards maintaining an efficient operation.  Managers are remunerated based on being able to deliver efficiencies rather than deliver innovative thinking, which creates a “machine’ that maximizes profits through controlled, manageable processes that deliver on established expectations.

The problem with this system is that outlier thinking and innovation are bred out of the machine, affecting the scope of its’ innovative capabilities in a profoundly critical way.

The adherence to established business practices and efficient processes that brings solid corporate judgement and decision making to a firm also breeds bias and risk aversion – The very same traits that are antagonistic to being capable of solving those really tough problems.

Finding success

To explain how IdeaConnection often succeeds where these large companies fail, I will describe some of the components and thinking that have been combined into a fairly unique R&D problem solving methodology:

1.       Multidisciplinary teams 

When companies encounter a tough problem that needs to be solved, they do what seems logical – they put their very best experts on it.   Putting the top people on it ensures the best chance of success, right?  Not always.  It is more than likely that the very best people will all be subject matter experts, trained and bred to approach the problem from the same perspective.  It has been shown that a diverse group of people can come up with solutions that are out of reach of the best experts.  (see link)

Putting people with different backgrounds, personalities, experiences and ways of thinking together, when properly facilitated, result in more creative ideas and yield solutions that incorporate different approaches to the problem.   Experts often are not able to ask those “dumb questions” that can often result in novel ways of attacking a problem.

Many of our best and most successful team members routinely participate on teams that are outside their core competency, often providing the critical idea that evolves its’ way into a successful solution.

2.       Adjacencies

In the 1940’s when the US Company Raytheon was trying to develop a new method of radar defense using magnetron tubes, an engineer named Percy Spencer noticed that a candy bar that he had in his pocket melted seemingly all on its own.  He investigated, and discovered that it had melted due to the microwave radiation from the magnetron tubes that he was testing.

From this laundry disaster, the microwave oven was developed.  It took a radar engineer to develop a cooking tool that is now in most of our homes.  What do you think would have been invented if an oven company had put their best oven engineers on solving the problem of speeding up cooking times?  Probably just a hotter and less energy efficient oven.

History is littered with stories of invention and solutions similar to this that have come from adjacent industries.   When you have a problem, it is very likely that the solution already exists, but in a different area of technology.    By reaching out to experts in all sorts of different areas of industry outside your core business area, you increase the chances of finding a solution by a large margin.

Do you think that any oven companies in the 1940’s employed magnetron scientists?  Similarly, large companies focus their efforts on their own core competencies, and by looking outside your company or even industry, you’ll often discover that the problem has already been solved.

When IdeaConnection builds teams, we purposefully build them with diverse people – with different backgrounds, different types of expertise, and different personalities.  The benefit of this is that we have reach into information and solutions from these adjacencies.  Of course, there will be subject matter experts on the team to help with applicability, but diversity is a critical factor in the success of our teams.

3.       Remove Bias from the equation

One of the valuable benefits of having an experienced veteran working in a technical role is that they are able to quickly assess a situation and make a decision based on their past experience, or even just a ‘gut feeling’.

But this can also create an element of bias.  Much like prejudice, bias is an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective and a refusal to even consider the possible merits of alternative points of view.

The downside of filling an organization with the best and most accomplished scientists is that potentially disruptive solutions are often discarded without even being considered.

You can see how this can be rather limiting, especially in the context of creative problem solving.

Many of the companies that use our services request to select the team members, presumably because they feel that they have the ability to identify the “true experts” in their own field – But we typically turn them down.  The reason for this is that there is a very good chance that they will stack the teams with people who are all subject matter experts (at least on paper), injecting the very same bias into the selection process that  caused them to look us up in the first place!

Teams are assembled carefully, taking into account soft skills, past performance, ability to work with other people with very different backgrounds, and creative problem solving capabilities.  Of course technical horsepower is a consideration, but the other factors are just as important.  They have hired us to take a different approach, after all.

Teams do have a communication channel to the client, however it is limited in just the right way. Communication with the client is encouraged just enough to help the teams understand the problem and scope, but not so much that the thinking that led to an unsolved problem invades the team.

An interesting note about our teams – they never know the identity of the client.  Because the teams are made of problem solvers, they often want to try to solve the mystery of the identity of the client, but we discourage this line of thinking.  Knowing the identity of the client leads to assumptions, and biases the teams’ thinking.  We remind them that the client’s way of thinking is what they were hired to avoid, rather than emulate.

4.       Collaboration vs competition

There are benefits to collaboration, and there are benefits to competition.  In a collaborative effort, expertise and resources are pooled in the hope that this shared experience of participants will produce an output that would not be achievable by a single individual working alone.

Likewise, there are also benefits to competition.  In a competitive environment, participants are motivated to perform at a higher level that they would typically, because the bar and resulting expectations are set by competitors rather than a manager.

IdeaConnection uses the multiplicity of both of these effects at the same time.  There is collaboration within each team, with diverse people with complementary capabilities pooling their knowledge, experience and brainpower to come up with a successful solution.  At the same time, there is an explicit competition between the teams, giving each team the incentive to push even harder for a solution, much more so than if they were the only team working on the problem.

5.       Motivation 

The difference between the motivation of a corporate scientist and a freelance problem solver varies greatly, and motivating factors can have a direct influence on the method of thinking that is applied to a particular problem.

As a scientist working for a company, you are motivated by your job expectations, potential for upward mobility in your company, and the respect of your peers.  This creates an environment where the tendency is towards small, incremental improvements and a very large aversion to risk (and transitory employment!), and  “out there” ideas that could backfire dramatically.

An external team does not have these same pressures.   Of course there is the goal of being paid for a successful solution, but when you start to investigate, you find that the actual motivations of problem solvers are actually a little bit less tangible.

Problem solvers are taking on challenges not because it’s their job – In fact, in many case they are participating exactly because it is not their job.  They are motivated by the pure enjoyment and fulfillment of solving a complex problem.   They are potentially coming in fresh from solving a previous difficult problem, and are excited to spend the next 2-3 months on the next one.

Where corporate scientists often avoid spending time on the “big problems” because they get caught up in their day to day responsibilities and don’t want to expend their already over-tapped and over-stressed brain power, problem solver teams actually enjoy focusing their minds on the problem, excited about the idea of taking on a new challenge for a short period of time.  If they come up with a “too crazy to work” solution, they don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves – no manager is going to question them, they aren’t risking their jobs, or anyone’s budget.  This atmosphere creates an environment where risky ideas are pursued, where creativity is rewarded, and where people can get excited about each other’s idea without worrying about the politics of who and what they support.

A Solution

Combined, these five components create a powerful model that sheds many of the inherent problems of corporate development, and precipitates a different approach to thinking about the problem and potential solutions.  Once teams are given the tools and environment – free of those very impediments that can stifle innovation in large companies, it is absolutely incredible to watch the process at work.  Although we have a long list of solved problems under our belt, the level of creativity and output from the teams still fascinates and amazes me each and every time I see it.


Paul is the President of IdeaConnection, one of the World’s leading Open Innovation service companies, helping solve difficult problems for some of the largest companies in the world.

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