Updated: Jan 18, 2020
The path from an idea to a successful innovation isn't always fun. It can be rocky and exhausting. When your business or your career depends on such a development, things can become uncomfortable.
As technology entrepreneur Elon Musk once famously said, "starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass."
In technology innovation, the creation of ideas is often the easy part. People talk about many ideas, and some of them are great ones. Turning these ideas into products and services is the problematic part. Depending on the degree of innovation, development teams sometimes dive into unchartered waters, facing unknown and complex problems. When little progress is visible, but delays, increasing efforts, and cost overruns become apparent, innovation projects usually are canceled.
Organizations often store these experiences as failures in their collective memory. A series of these episodes can have terrible effects on teams and organizations and diminish their innovation capacity, as people become more and more risk-averse and passive.
Fortunately, practical approaches and methods are available to solve problems effectively. For obvious reasons, I cannot describe the numerous issues I helped companies to solve till today. But there was a critical incident I will probably never forget. Almost twenty years ago, I experienced an emergency landing with a Jumbo Jet in Beijing. It was caused by, what was explained to us, as an engine failure and problems with the hydraulic system. It takes some time to dump all the fuel stored for a long return flight from Shanghai to Europe. The rather unusual flight maneuvers made it pretty apparent that something was seriously wrong. I thought about my life, and I tried to understand what was going on from a technical point of view. Of course, I am very grateful to the pilots and the crew for the safe landing under challenging circumstances. It was also absolutely clear to me that the ability to stay in the air despite severe defects was designed into the airplane. I became a specialist in technical systems analysis, risk analysis, and problem-solving. It turned out to be very useful in many situations where complex technical problems hindered projects or rocked entire companies.
So, what can you do when a difficult technical problem blocks your innovation project?
Well, first you have to understand that this problem consists of at least two levels: The People involved and the technical issue. According to my experience, people often do not realize that many technical problems become solvable with the right approach. Of course, not every technical issue can be solved at a given point in time. But finding an appropriate plan and choosing the proper methods are keys to reaching a solution.
On the human level, you have to unknot the facts and stats of the problem from the people involved. Strong leadership is helpful in crises. But strong personalities have also to be able to restrain themselves in certain situations. It makes sense to put responsibilities temporarily aside to stop the blame game about why things went wrong, and the project or the company is in the current situation. As long as people feel the need to defend themselves, they won't be able to move from their position or open up to new perspectives and approaches. A neutral person can be helpful, particularly in emotionally overcharged situations. This person must be detached from the history of the issue but able to grasp the technological elements of the problem and lead people through the problem-solving process.
On the technical level, things can be as diverse and complex as the various fields of technology and sciences are. But some methods and tools help to navigate through limitless possibilities to a solution. A primary key is to combine analysis and creativity effectively. For instance, the analysis has to contain an accurate description of the problem. And of course, the requirements have to be clearly defined that possible solutions need to fulfill. A typical way to solve technical issues is to create and work with adequate models. Which type of model is useful and how the specifics look like depends very much on the particular field and disciplines. In general, they describe network-structures and consist of characteristics and functions, cause-effect-relations, as well as various other elements and information. It requires expertise to create such a model and to identify the relevant information. Based on this model, an experienced leader with expertise in problem-solving methods and tools can guide the team step-by-step to a solution.
As mentioned before, you can find all sorts of scenarios in reality with additional factors and layers overshadowing the technical challenge. Some of them can further complicate a situation like power struggles in a company or excessive regulations. Others facilitate finding solutions like a supportive company culture or a vast external network of expertise.
Innovation projects based on promising ideas can fail because teams and companies are unable to overcome technical problems. Not all of the technical issues are per se unsolvable. The organizations are unable to find adequate approaches ("Overcoming Hurdles in Technology Innovation") to tackle their challenges.
It is essential to understand that solving such a problem requires actions on at least two levels: People and technics. First, you have to create a new situation on the human level, where you regain the needed capacities for the innovation project. Then you can start working on the actual problem by creating models and applying all the necessary methods and tools to develop a solution.
What are your experiences with problems and problem-solving in innovation projects?
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Sources and Recommendations
Musk, E. (2013). Elon Musk - CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX | Entrepreneurship | Khan Academy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDwzmJpI4io
Thiebus, S. (2019). Overcoming Hurdles in Technology Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.thiebus.com/overcoming-hurdles-in-technology-in