What if innovation was not about solving problems? This thought nags me whenever I'm forced to read about the grave responsibility of "innovation" to solve such persistent problems as climate change, healthcare, poverty, and education. Or listening to how innovation might solve all of Acme, Incorporated's problems but especially that gaping hole in Q3 revenues for 2012, their obsolete technology platform, or declining share values.
We lack a good vocabulary for the alternative—so for now, consider that innovation may actually be about ‘problemizing’ solutions. More breakthroughs, I would bet my last dollar, come from facing a persistent solution and finding a good problem for it than the other way around.
Peter Landers, in the WSJ today, noted that a new cancer drug, Halaven, derived from halichondrin B, a substance identified in a black sponge that lives off the coast of Japan (New Breast Cancer Drug Found Deep in the Sea). As Landers notes,
Big pharmaceutical companies used to have entire sections devoted to research on natural products, and they yielded some major anticancer drugs. Taxol, from the Pacific yew tree, is a staple chemotherapy drug; another set of widely used drugs derives from the Madagascar periwinkle plant. Yet despite popular notions about the miracle cures lying in the Amazon, many companies over the past decade have scaled back research into potential natural sources.
Recently, rather than start with nature, many corporate scientists have been starting with a target, the particular process in cancerous cells that goes awry. They look for drugs, typically synthetic or semi-synthetic molecules cooked up by humans, that can block the target process.
In other words, Pharmaceutical research drifted towards searching for solutions for a given problem and away from searching for problems for a given solution. It didn’t use to be this way. Landers lists a few drug-related breakthroughs that came from existing solutions:
1. Quinine, made from bark of the cinchona tree, has been used for centuries to treat malaria.
2. The chemical salicylic acid, found in willow bark, was the basis for the development of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid).
3. Cyclosporin, isolated from soil samples, is an immunesuppressant used to prevent transplanted-organ rejection.
4. The diabetes drug Byetta, approved in 2005, derives from a hormone of the Gila monster, a lizard of the southwest U.S.
5. Taxol, a staple of chemotherapy, comes from the Pacific yew tree.
To which I would add
6. Cumadin, the blood thinner, came from Warfarin, the rat poison, which was originally discovered in the spoiled sweet clover-based animal feeds that were killing Wisconsin cows.
7. Penicillin, which came from the Penicillium Notatum mold that was particularly potent against the kinds of bacterias that cause human infections.
8. Viagra, the failed hypertension medication.
9. Minoxidil (in the hair growth product, Rogaine) was originally a medication for high blood
The list can go on and on.
Big pharma is not alone in this tendency to lock in on particular problems and look for new solutions. Almost all corporate innovation efforts are built around the need to solve particular, clearly identified problems (most of which, when you look closely, are really the corporation’s problems, not the customer’s).
It is interesting to consider why this happens. It’s not natural. Historically, most innovations emerge to solve one problem yet have their greatest impact somewhere else. The steam engine was developed to pump water from coal mines, not to power the mills, trains, ships, and factories of the industrial revolution—though eventually such problems adopted that solution. The Internet was developed to allow a small population of academics to share time on expensive computers, and the entire evolutionary path it has taken since has been a search for more problems that the resulting web can solve. Even Edison’s phonograph was developed as an answering machine for the new talking telegraphs.
You see it as well in the early days of every science- and technology-based startups, when their first major challenge is finding and define the real problem they should be working on. Synapsense, a leading provider of energy efficiency solutions for data centers, began as a technological solution—highly scalable and robust sensor networks—and its founders’ first challenge was to find the best problem for the unique nature of this particular solution. Their search ran from vineyard management to smart buildings, until they found that data centers experience tremendous inefficiencies in cooling—a problem for which a network of sensors can enable a solution that cuts energy costs (the single largest cost to running server farms) by a third to a half. Of course, what follows is the bulk of the work—creating an entire solution (and company) around this opportunity—which we’ll return to soon enough.
In fact, if you look closely at the origins of most major companies and you will find they started out building a solution to one problem but finding success by finding a better problem for their solution. Briggs & Stratton began by building motorcycles, washing machines, then instrument panels and a host of other industrial goods before finding that their solution—building small mechanical things really well—was best suited to the problem of small engines, of which they are the world’s leading maker.
So why does innovation drift towards finding breakthrough solutions for persistent problems rather than finding breakthrough problems for persistent solutions?
It’s an organizational problem, really. Organizations are hard to build and, once built, they are hard to change. Build an organization to make and sell something and you create a complex network that runs from suppliers of equipment and materials to manufacturing processes, to a vast sales and distribution network, to retail partners and customers. The result is a tangled mass of people and technologies whose sole purpose is to deliver a particular solution to a particular problem.
Moreover, as manufacturing gets easier and cheaper to outsource, the bulk of the value and complexity of big companies lies in what Kerouac might have called the “spinning meat wheel” that is their sales and marketing machinery. Nothing scares an organization like having to reinvent its customer base. So it’s an easier to imagine swapping the old solutions, with their old suppliers and contract manufacturers, for new ones than to build an entirely new force of eager, knowledgeable, and well-incented salesmen and women to go out and woo entirely new customers who have an entirely different problem. Like swapping an electric motor for an internal combustion engine, or a new cholesterol medication for old one, so long as you can keep your car dealers and drug reps.
That is why most truly breakthrough innovations come from small companies—not because their people are smarter than those who work in big companies but because they are able to build an entirely new tangled mass aimed at solving a different problem than established companies are solving. They have nothing invested in the old problems.
If innovation is really about problemizing solutions—finding a new problem for an old solution—then it’s not about coming up with a new solution, it’s about building the means to deliver this old solution, in the right form, to a new problem. That view of innovation lets us abandon our obsession with new ideas (and the genii who have or sell them) and start worrying about how to find new problems and build the capacity to provide them with old solutions.