In Search of Innovative Problems — Part 1

In Search of Innovative Problems will be published weekly in five parts over the next month. Each part will be published simultaneously here and on both of our LinkedIn pages [Brian Leitten and Bradley Strock]. We intend to conduct an ongoing dialog on finding problems and innovation. We invite your comments.

“The truth knocks on the door and you say ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In Search of Innovative Problems


Innovation is generally associated with solving existing problems. Innovative new products and services solve problems that are troubling customers and incorporate new solutions that differentiate products from those that already exist. Almost all existing innovation models presume that the problem, or customer need, is reasonably defined and can be articulated by those in the business or by their customers. Success is defined by delivering the first and most effective solution to customers’ known problems.

A myriad of tools exist to uncover and prioritize customer needs. Billions of dollars are spent annually on focus groups, quantitative analysis, conjoints, face-to-face interviews, customer-driven innovation and a wealth of other market research tools to bring out and sort out the problems and needs of customers. All of these traditional tools require that the customers know and can reasonably articulate their needs going into the research. They are not tools that are highly useful for identifying the problems customers don’t recognize or can’t articulate.

Our goal is to distill problem identification down to an innovative, logical and usable framework and turn everyone into problem seekers.

The Problem with Problems

Businesses want innovative solutions. Nobody is saying “I want to know what all the problems are.” Problems aren’t considered valuable. They are annoyances, to be avoided or removed.

Culturally, we are focused on solutions. People get ahead by solving problems. Who ever got promoted for finding problems? Finding problems has never been high on anyone’s list. But for businesses to be successful today and in the future, they must stay ahead of their customers by anticipating and fulfilling their customers’ toughest problems, their unarticulated and unarticulatable needs. If they can find their customers’ problems before they become recognized as problems, then they never become problems. Einstein said that “intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them” and the first competitor to present products and services that accomplish this will be the big winner.

Problems that are difficult or impossible for customers to recognize or relate to are typically multi-dimensional. These problems result from multiple root causes that can work in concert to mask or completely cloud important product or service issues.

We call these the innovative problems.

Customers may not even realize that a product or service could be much better than it is. They become complacent and simply get used to the status quo. They fumble with zippers on coats and jackets even though they are often hard to connect and close with ease. They accept smoke alarms that continually generate false alarms, can’t be turned off easily, provide no useful information and let batteries run out without warning. It was Steve Jobs who famously said, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Consider coffee. For over a thousand years, coffee has been brewed in pots. Steeped, boiled, percolated, brewed under a vacuum, dripped, one pot at a time. If you wanted a cup, you had one choice, whatever was in the current pot (possibly two if in recent years someone had made a separate pot of decaf). In an office or at home, where the great bulk of coffee is consumed, the coffee typically tasted mediocre at best. If you happened to get a cup when it was just brewed, its taste might be at its best. Should you arrive at the pot to find it half-full and sitting on the warmer for hours, you may just find the bitter end, overheated and tasteless or even cold if someone had switched the warmer off. And if you wanted a different flavor or strength, you were just out of luck.

Businesses found the coffee machine to be a dilemma. On one hand, it kept employees at work, alert and fueled with caffeine. But the resurgence of the local coffeehouse (which had been popular in some form or another, serving coffee from pots, for almost 500 years), with its quality coffee, myriad of flavors and now offering the ability to custom order the drink of your choice one cup at a time, was luring workers away from the office and killing productivity.

Enter John Sylvan, in 1992 a marketing manager at a Boston semiconductor company. John took turns collecting funds that his coffee-drinking coworkers chipped in to pay the coffee vendor on his weekly visit. Every visit was a hassle — someone not there that day to chip in; another forgot her money; another without the correct change; all in all a thankless, annoying task. Add in the generally bad coffee that resulted and it was annoying enough for him to quit his job to try and find a better way.

Jump forward three years to 1995 and we find John in the emergency room, suffering from symptoms that looked like a heart attack but were finally diagnosed as caffeine poisoning, from the 30–40 cups of joe he was downing each day. 30–40? Yes, he and his partner were deep in throes of revolutionizing the coffee market, building their Keurig single-cup brewing machine and personally testing every batch. The ultimate result of their caffeine-fueled effort — high-quality coffee available in endless varieties, made fresh cup by cup exactly when and where the drinker wants it, each cup different from the next. From the office to the home, the Keurig brewing machine has upset the coffee making world and changed the paradigm of brewing.

After much time passes and a product or service has been used over and over again, the subset of the innovative problems which were once impossible to see may start to become clearer. The visible problem horizon has shifted. Competitors of Keurig now focus on building some sort of competitive advantage through recyclable packaging since the Keurig K-cups that hold the single servings are plastic.

© Copyright 2014 Brian J. Leitten & Bradley R. Strock

Part 2/5 will investigate the problem with smoke alarms and share our Problem-Solution Matrix for classifying problems and solutions by their known and unknown states.