In a previous post Real Innovation is Not Problem Solving, I chose a title I knew was provocative, and one I labored over. I debated with myself over whether to perhaps make it: Innovation is Not Necessarily Problem Solving, or …is Not Always Problem Solving, or …is More Than Problem Solving. I chose the blunter version partly to see if it would prompt any response and it certainly did. Since being reposted on the Innovation Excellence Group on LinkedIn, it has sparked a lively discussion, one that prompted some additional thoughts I think are worth sharing.

I’m convinced there really is a qualitative difference between innovation and problem solving…and there are compelling reasons why this is more than a matter of semantics. It matters because a problem solving mindset is different from what I call an innovator mindset. And the mindset we hold to a great degree determines how we apply our creativity and the resources that are available to us.

Problem solving typically prompts us to do something that Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon called satisficing, it’s a reaction to some challenge or deficit or unmet goal. It requires that we find a way to correct the deficit or reach the goal but not necessarily anything more. When our focus is only on solving the problem at hand, we’re limiting the scope of our thinking to those things that may address that problem. We’re also limiting the times when we apply our creativity to those occasions when we have a problem to solve. So we limit both the scope of our inventiveness and the times when we use it. Frankly, this is how most of us go through life and conduct our business, thinking: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Innovation is about fixing what isn’t broken.

While innovation may be prompted by some problem, it need not be and when it is, it entails something more than a simple solution. If the brakes on a car are wearing out, I can replace the brake pads (problems solving) or I can design an improved longer lasting brake pad (innovation) or I can design a different kind of brake that uses electrical resistance instead of friction (more innovative), or I can design a hover craft that has no wheels in need of slowing down. (breakthrough innovation) or I can design teleportation and eliminate any need for a vehicle, and so on. Innovation may render the initial problem trivial or irrelevant. If we ever invent teleportation, it will solve the problem of brake pads wearing out, but I doubt that anyone will argue that that problem will have been the reason for such a dramatic invention.

Strictly speaking all of these innovations are solutions to a problem but what distinguishes innovation is that it goes beyond that basic requirement in a way that is qualitatively different. It’s the desire and ability to do more than just solve a problem, by rethinking the nature of the problem itself, or inventing some enhancement that has no underlying problem to solve. Innovators don’t wait for a problem to be identified to begin seeking improvements. When a problem happens to be the incident cause, I’m arguing that in a very real sense there may be a different and additional activity—a kind of meta problem solving occurring that deserves its own definition, and the one I would give it is: innovation.

So, why am I pushing this distinction? Mindset is crucial because it occurs upstream from innovation. It’s the frame of mind we hold that determines whether or not we’re going to be innovative. When our mindset is focused only on solving problems, our ability to innovate is limited. But when we look for potential enhancements, we’re thinking much more broadly.

Mindset is the collection of attitudes, assumptions and beliefs we carry around with us. These are choices (although frequently unconscious ones) that determine our capacity to innovate. To be at our most effective and inventive and adaptive, we need to first get our mindset in the right place and that means doing more than looking for problems to solve. An innovator mindset is a sustained way of thinking and perceiving the world and the challenges we face, one that continually values and pursues enhancements, not just solutions. 

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