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Interview with IdeaConnection Facilitator Sandy Ping
Sandy Ping has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in innovation, which started with Procter and Gamble in 1980. He worked his way up through the company and became a senior engineer in the innovation section.

As a serial inventor he’s been responsible for a number of the company’s successes, including Swiffer Wetjet® which has become a billion dollar brand and one of their fastest growing product lines.

photo of Sandy PingHe’s a certified knowledge engineer, specializing in knowledge management, and today runs his own consultancy, Targeted Innovation Services, which helps companies all over the world to innovate. With 11 US patents and more than 40 international patents to his name, he brings a vast body of knowledge to problem solving teams.

Sandy spoke to IdeaConnection about his experience working on challenges, explaining how innovation provides companies with the best possible solutions in shorter time frames.

What led you to IdeaConnection?
Actually, I got on one of their mailing lists early on, and watched them grow from the start, and have been very impressed with their growth and the amount of information they have on their website. When I decided I would like to do some of the team work with them, I went out to see them in Victoria, and was probably one of the few people to get on a plane to see who they are and what they’re doing. I’ve been looking for a company like this and so they fit the bill for what I had been looking for.

And since then you’ve worked on a number of challenges with them?
Yes, I’ve worked on a number of projects; since they’re all secret, I can’t tell you what they are. It’s been very rewarding working with them.

The thing I think IdeaConnection has got going for it is they have really capitalized on the team problem solving concept and have put what I think are the right elements together to improve their probability of success.

They have a facilitator and a place where people can work together that they call a ThinkSpace. They have a way that everyone can share information even when they are not together. They get together with a facilitator to actually work on the problems, and follow a process I agree with. I’m very impressed with the package they’ve put together. As one of the emerging players in this business, I think you’ll see a lot of improvements in team problem solving coming from them in the future.

If I was a CEO and had some problems that needing solving and was thinking about going outside of my company’s walls, what would be the advantage of having a team work on them rather than an individual sitting in his or her den?
I think you’re hitting on one of the major differences in thinking these days. We are really moving into a new era of problem solving. In the old days individuals were thinking on their own to figure out problems, and all they could draw on was their own knowledge. It was basically how they defined the problem and they came up with their own solutions.

The big advantage of team problem solving is that when you really put together a group of people, each person in the group has a different perspective. They each look at the problem from totally different points of view; and because they’re all working together collaboratively, they’re trying to deal with these differences, and that drives them to come up with more creative solutions.

You also get the advantage of the amount of knowledge each person has acquired over their lifetime, the different ways each looks at the problem, and the interactions between them which give them a variety of ideas.

When you are looking to develop new ideas - in the beginning at least - it’s all about the quantity of ideas. You have a lot more to work with when you are starting to narrow the possibilities and trying to figure out what the best ideas are. Using a team, I think you end up with a much broader look at problems and are better able to focus in on the right solutions. A single individual wouldn’t see all those different perspectives by themselves.

So with a team the sum is greater than its individual parts?
Yes, exactly. The secret is the combination of all those people working together. Two minds are better than one, while three is even better than that. It provides an exponential improvement in the amount of information and the quality of information you are working with. Adding additional people to your team improves the probability of getting to the right answer.

Of all the people offering these services right now, I think IdeaConnection may have the best ability to pull people together.

What needs to happen more, getting to my own point of view, is what I call upfront problem definition. These days when the seekers are out there trying to come up with solutions to their problems, the consultant team doesn’t have adequate control over the challenges unless the clients define the problem and its variables as accurately as they can.

There’s another problem, too: - because the seeker really didn’t really understand the problem in the first place, they are unable to sort through the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of solutions that they may receive in response to their challenge.

Then they’ll end up with so many they can’t figure out which ones have merit. Companies need to start with a better understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. That’s what I’ve been working on myself: helping companies define their innovational needs up front.

Is the onus on the companies to define exactly what they want?
Yes, exactly. To me it’s about improving the probability of success. When companies have problems they need solved but don’t do a good job of defining them upfront, their probability of finding the right solution and then implementing it goes down substantially. When companies do a better job of defining these problems at the outset and of getting down to explaining the roadblocks stopping the problem from being solved, they will get much higher quality results quicker. Accurate problem definition just improves their overall success rates.

When teams work together to solve a problem, do they have to do so at the same time?
The answer is what I call one of the new ideas in team development. It’s called synchronous and asynchronous team working, and there are benefits to each type. Asynchronous style people need a place to go where they can provide information anytime 24/7. They all may not be able to get together at the same time but they can at least share information within the context of what they’re working on. And that’s one of the things that IdeaConnection’s ThinkSpace provides: a place where people can put information anytime – you can add any documents, put in thoughts, and everybody can work on them singly or in subgroups at any time.

Then, at a different point in time, a team can all get together at the same time and deal with that information together – and that’s the synchronous part. There’s a real advantage when you put the two types together.

I am very interested in finding improved tools and would love to hear about new tools and systems to help improve the team problem solving concept.

Is bringing together synchronous and asynchronous teamwork an ideal way of innovating?
It is definitely moving in that direction. This whole team based concept is currently an emerging technology, and I think IdeaConnection is one of the leaders in moving the innovation process in the right direction. I see this whole approach improving at an accelerated rate over the next 2, 3 to 5 years. I think we’re going to see big improvements to the concept of team problem solving in the future.

Since the field of innovation is itself innovating, where do you think it will be in the next few years?
Basically, we need to sit back and think about what the ideal might be. I use a process that’s called systematic innovation that is based on a lot of TRIZ principles – the theory of inventive problem solving. One of the basic pillars of this process is that first you have to think about what the ideal solution might be, even if you may not be able to achieve it right now. Then we can look around and see what technologies and tools we have that can get us where we need to go now. Then we look at what’s missing, and by knowing where the limitations are, where things aren’t working well, we can identify improvements. Gradually, we see the result improve over time until we get as close as feasible to the ideal.

Another concept is that somebody somewhere has already solved at least part of the problem that we’re dealing with. We need to look for these solutions all the time and continue to incorporate them into our systems.

I’m actually very optimistic. We’re on the cusp of major change. I think we’re beginning the acceleration phase of this new process of innovating where we are dealing with global expertise that we can tap into 24/7, which is pretty incredible.

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