Individual Innovators Cannot Compete with a Group Going Through the Creative Problem Solving Process

Interview with Wayne Fisher
By Paul Arnold
For more than 25 years, Wayne Fisher worked for Procter & Gamble in a variety of Corporate R&D and Business Unit roles.

He was an Upstream Product Development Manager, an Innovation Guide and a Technology Entrepreneur for P&G’s widely lauded Connect and Develop program. Wayne also introduced TRIZ and other innovation methodologies into the multinational, training thousands of engineers and scientists around the globe. He led the early discovery work on water soluble pouches, including Ariel laundry detergent Liquitabs and Cascade dishwashing detergent Action Pacs. Today, he is President of Rockdale Innovation and continues to work with P&G on a consultancy basis, as well as helping other multinationals install innovation best practices to drive revenue and profit growth.

In this interview with IdeaConnection, Wayne shares his thinking about open innovation, the importance of effective problem definition, and the power and potential of creative problem solving.

Wayne FisherI gave a talk at an open innovation conference about two years ago and I was literally the only person in the conference that even mentioned the need for effective problem definition in the context of open innovation. I was introducing this group to the effective problem definition to help them to understand that open innovation needs to be part of an end-to-end creative problem solving process, not a stand-alone tool.

At Procter & Gamble, I developed the Effective Problem Definition protocol for the Connect and Develop program to help scientists and engineers define their problem before submitting technical briefs to open innovation service providers.

In my experience, effective problem definition process for any particular innovation challenge generates one or two hundred very granular problem statements.

And then what?

So now you’ve got these hundred problems and they need to be sorted in a kind of two-way matrix: how important are these problems (from most important to least important) and where should we be looking to solve these problems (internally or externally)?

For some problems, we would have to disclose too much confidential information to be able to get meaningful help from the outside, so those are problems we should solve ourselves. Then there are problems that we can work with strategic suppliers, say an equipment vendor or a raw material supplier. It’s open innovation by definition, but it’s conducted within an enclosed environment. To cast a wider net, P&G also conducts a fair amount of open innovation challenges using external service providers.

So it’s a discipline of going through the effective problem definition process and doing the proper sorting of all the potential problem statements. Then, it’s crafting a well-written tech brief that will attract the kind of subject matter expertise that you’re looking for.

Do confidentiality concerns limit companies when they are trying to explain their problems and write a tech brief?

Let me give you a specific example. I think this illustrates the art of effective problem definition when writing technical briefs. Suppose you would like to find an adhesive that can be applied as a low viscosity fluid with high initial wet tack, but that loses its tack over time when exposed to the air.

In other words, the adhesive has very high tack immediately upon application in the manufacturing process, but no tack later when the customer is using the product. This is a classic TRIZ way of stating the problem. In this case, an adhesive supplier can tell you whether they can help you or not. But they have don’t need to know the particulars about the product application or the manufacturing process. There’s no need to give away any confidential information. When you’re that specific about writing the problem statement, you get exactly the information that you’re looking for without disclosing anything about business strategies, technology development and so on. You have no idea what business I’ve been talking about, right? That’s the key to effective problem definition for open innovation.

Our rule of thumb is that within 60 seconds of receiving your technical brief, a potential solution provider should be able to say either they can help you or not. That’s our definition of a really well written problem statement.

So, our Connect and Develop organization asked me to develop a protocol that they could put teams through, so that they were better prepared to do open innovation. And, back in the day, service providers recognized that they needed to strengthen the technical briefs they submitted to their solving communities. They recognized when you put out a fairly vague tech brief…

You get vague, non-specific answers?

Exactly, right. If you put garbage out, you get garbage back. So they started offering effective problem definition service to their clients similar to what we did at P&G.

How do you get people engaged in creative problem solving processes who are unfamiliar with it?

Creative problem solving is a group activity by its nature. My partner and I have done a lot of research in the area of cognitive science and how it applies to creative problem solving. We know that creative problem solving is not something that an individual can do effectively alone. There’s no human on the planet who can apply the creative problem solving process to their own problem. It’s just not a natural thinking style. And so our expertise is how to get a group of people engaged in this process, which requires very different thinking styles during the problem definition, idea generation, and action planning stages. Think of it like a group fitness class. You take a class and you're going to do things that you wouldn't normally do alone. You need someone, a fitness coach, to get you to try new things and push you harder, so you get the full benefit of your workout. It's a bit of that.

Individuals can’t go it alone. I think that’s the message, right? Correct, no individual can do this to themselves, at least not as effectively as being part of a team going through the process. Even diverse teams struggle with this, unless someone is willing to step out of the team player role and say ‘I will facilitate the rest of the group through the process’. Now if you have a team that’s very well trained and has experience with creative problem solving, you’ll find those teams can do a better job going it alone. But again that’s why people came out to the innovation center where I was doing these workshops. They recognized they can’t do this for themselves.

So that’s really the kind of the work I continue to do at P&G. The work I do with other companies, it’s more of a struggle because they don’t have an established innovation program. They’re not necessarily clued up on how to go about it or what’s the best way to go about it. There, we first need to introduce innovation as a business work process, and then make creative problem solving the cornerstone of that.

When you are working with other companies, is open innovation one of the approaches that you suggest to them?

Well, what I’ve learned is that I don’t go in to sell methodologies per se. It’s creative problem solving. If TRIZ is the right tool, we’ll use TRIZ. If open innovation is the right tool, we’ll use open innovation and so on. They’re trusting me to guide them through this process and bring in the right tools at the right time.

I would say probably one of my best examples of open innovation was through one of these workshops. It was a local company whose traditional market was eroding and so they needed to enter new markets. Their question was: we have all these intellectual and physical assets; how do we enter a new market that leverages existing assets?

This was a classic creative problem solving process. So, we put them through a combination of design thinking (with lots and lots of customer immersion experiences), effective problem definition, and advanced technical problem solving involving their hardware and software suppliers.

It was really powerful to have the software and hardware suppliers listening to their customers’ customers’ problems. Because what seemed impossible to the local company (my client), the suppliers were saying “we can do that”, “we know how to do that”. So, making connections across the supply chain was very powerful.

Again, we don’t tell our clients were doing design thinking or TRIZ or open innovation. To them, we’re doing creative problem solving. It’s our job to customize the experience based on the challenge in front of us.

So creative problem solving is fundamental to innovation?

Yes. The other thing about the creative problem solving process is that it promotes this concept of group genius. You get ten smart people in the room, and the creative problem solving process leverages the collective knowledge of that entire group against the problem. I don’t know of any other mechanism that really enables that. And so that’s the other huge benefit.

It’s just the act of allowing everyone’s brain to be focused on problem. The act of effective problem definition is probably the single most powerful idea generation tool in our toolbox. I’ve often found teams that fully understand this can come up with very creative solutions without having to tap any external knowledge sources. The collective knowledge of the group just needs to be brought to bear.

So groups are better than individuals at innovation?

I’ve read the evidence to the contrary, but in my experience groups come out head and shoulders above individual innovators. No individual can compete with a group – that is, a group that’s going through the creative problem solving process.

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