In our “How to Uncover Breakthrough Innovations Using Insights” Master Class, Ludwig Melik and Sara Husk of Planbox discuss how companies can find the right problems to innovate around. During the call, they discussed:

  • Why breakthrough innovation matters
  • The different elements needed for successful transformational innovation
  • The different steps of the discovery process

Melik is the CEO of Planbox, a provider of AI-powered agile innovation software. Sara Husk is the Chief Customer Officer at the company. Visit Planbox’s website for the slide deck.

Why Discovery Matters 

Ludwig Melik: It’s no surprise that many businesses…place a significant amount of their time, effort, and resources on continuously improvement and incremental innovation. To protect their core structure, it is very imperative. But also, it’s…a lot more tangible and feasible to do than breakthrough innovation. But breakthrough innovation is really only realized when you discover and focus on the real issue at hand. So learning to explore and question the unknown is…when the magic really happens…

Sara Husk: Your team may want to explore something like the issues and the opportunities that are within big, chunky topics like artificial intelligence or consumer trends or 5G, quantum computing. … And I think what we’ve learned is that with these kinds of topics, it’s really difficult to just look at them and immediately know how it’s going to be applied in your business or to your customers or to your employees. And so what we really think we need is a journey of exploration to kind of unlock those opportunities.

Components of the Discovery Journey

Sara Husk: So the first step in that journey is really to clearly define the outcomes that you need to achieve. Something to keep in mind when you’re working on these big chunky topics that we’ve also learned through time, it’s really critical to gain executive and key stakeholder inputs up front. That critical step, what that really does is set the tone for the overall effort and then drives tangible results and ensures you get the buy in when you get to the point where you are ready to take action. So that’s part of the process that we recommend as well.

Another key to success is really designing the project to ensure that we expose the team to the right kind of creative stimulus… But to do that, just at a high level, we use things that many of you may use as well. Things like analogies, interactive media, bringing in catalysts — just ways to expose the team to new information. That’s really critical to how we start off the whole process.

It’s also really important to have a team of contributors that have cross functional and diverse perspectives. So, although it may seem counterintuitive, by really pre-planning our approach, we designed the team’s journey kind of step by step, because that’ll lead them through those new discoveries.

And so, once we designed all of that, we also are going to make some critical decisions up front. So we need to think about things like, how do we want to look at the problem? We call those lenses. How do we want to look at things as we explore? We’re also going to consider things like data sources. What kind of data do we need to bring in? And then also, how are we going to make decisions around the ultimate opportunities that come out of this whole thing?

And then once that’s done, the creativity can really begin at…and it begins when we operationalize the project with the actions that we’ve designed. That really kicks off the team collecting clues. And then through that process, we develop these clues into a tangible set of opportunities and problems that we can then prioritize. And then finally, we’ve got to think about what’s going to happen next… How do we actually bring value to the business through these transformational possibilities?

Six Steps to Finding the Right Problem 

  1. Create — Look for clues to find weak signals that represent customer needs, market dynamics, competitive pressures, and the evolving technology landscape.
  2. Expand — Finding meaning in your clues and look for trends.
  3. Connect — Turn your clues into hunches. 
  4. Search and Connect Hunches — Group hunches together and determine what pattern links them together. 
  5. Evaluate Opportunities — Look for opportunities that can emerge from the insights that you’ve been able to develop.
  6. Evaluate Results — Determine which of these opportunities represent meaningful problems to solve.

Ludwig Melik: What you do when you want to discover solutions and identify real breakthrough opportunities, you really have to follow the Sherlock Holmes model — which is just question, question, question. And true innovators of course, keep questioning until they can keep going and ultimately really find the right problem. In other words, they’re looking for a lot more questions and not answers. And they’re really studying the issues until they know it like the back of their hand.

First [the] discovery stage, we call it create. So here, you’re really looking for clues. … It really comes down to looking for observations…pieces of knowledge, experience, and again, coming from all kinds of internal and external data sources. So this could be…information that resides on a SharePoint database. It could be information that is in your CRM, Salesforce.com. It could be from external publications just on the internet or social networks. And you need to really assemble these clues and as many bits of knowledge as possible. And the idea is to really develop what you can kind of refer to as weak signals that are representing customer needs, market dynamics, competitive pressures, and the evolving technology landscape.

The second discovery stage…is expand. Here, you’re really looking for meanings from your clues, right? You’re essentially contextualizing these possible meanings from your clues, looking at the world kind of with a fresh new eye, and leading all these preconceived notions aside, so you can really get creative and start looking for patterns where these clues come from, where they lead to, and what they really mean to you and your organization. … When can the mini from these clues become reality?

So in terms of stage, three of the discoveries, we refer to it as connect. So here, you’re really looking for what hunches you can form from your clues and their meanings. Now you have a lot of information you can consider… So you’re looking for deeper truth that can emerge as you go through this analysis. And you’re trying to combine your clues into meanings, to form a hunch, and start having some kind of a creative new belief about the world that you can consider…

The fourth discovery stage is really all about searching and connecting all these data points to be able to formulate insights. … So you take that step further. And you look for these connections, and you can kind of explore what you can learn from what they can really represent your organization… You’re trying to see what these collisions that you can do with these different data points can present for organization. And as you can look at these hunches, ideally, you try to kind of group them together, whether it’s in groups of three or five, and you try to look for how they can potentially relate to each other. And what is the pattern of thought that really links these hunches together?That’s essentially how you can start to formulate some insight.

In the fifth discovery stage, you’re really trying to look for opportunities that can emerge from the insights that you’ve been able to develop. … This is where you’re, going to unlock that secrets of customer motivation… So you need to synthesize and vet your hunches. You need to look for penetrating concepts, and you need to find these fresh, new perspectives that you haven’t thought about before. … A lot of creative creativity is required at this stage, you can pull back, you are at that “a-ha” moments before you can potentially find this very interesting opportunity.

Then, we’ll move on to the final stage of the discovery. Now you really want to see which of these opportunities represent meaningful problems that are worth solving. So you’re really looking at kind of prioritizing the potential problems you want to think innovating with your innovation ecosystem. So you’re looking at possible futures, evaluating them against each other, and you’re considering different scenarios based on a range of criteria from being important or less important. You have various types of criteria, likelihood of success, degree that they are actionable, possible potential value to the business, how systemic is this potential opportunity for your organization. And at the end of that exercise, you can kind of give yourself a congratulations because you have a genuine problem in your hands, that can lead to a breakthrough innovation.