Why Falling in Love with Your Ideas Kills Innovation

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Problem-solving is a valuable skill. But is it as valuable as problem-questioning in today’s work landscape? Robyn Bolton, innovation expert and designer and leader of Intrapreneurship Academy’s Driving Innovation course, unpacks the traditional workplace paradigm of “falling in love with a solution” instead of with a problem — and why a shift in mindset and approach are key to successful innovation.

“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”

Although not as well-known as other innovation mantras like “Fail Fast” and “See around corners,” this mantra is, in my experience, truer than any of them. It is also harder to follow.

It’s hard to fall in love with a problem.

By the time most of us enter the workforce, we are Do-ers. Our bosses train us to bring solutions, not problems. Our employers reward us for showing initiative, taking action, and resolving issues. We celebrate when we find the answer, crack the case, and drive the change.

We have stopped being Questioners, Wonderers, and Explorers. We stopped asking “Why?” and “What if?” and “Why not.” We stopped wondering why or where or when or how things might be or once were or could be. We stopped exploring the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexplained.

Falling in love with a problem requires us to ask why it exists and why it hasn’t been solved yet. It requires us to wonder about why things that look like solutions aren’t. It requires us to explore and look for root causes and to welcome surprises.

Falling in love with a solution is what we are trained to do.

But falling in love with a solution, not the problem it solves, locks us into a course of action that is often all or nothing.

Falling in love with the problem is what we need to do.

Falling in love with a problem gives us a place of certainty to return to. The problem is evidence of market opportunity, we simply need to find the solution that unlocks it.

Consider these 3 examples:

An R&D team develops a breakthrough new technology but producing it at scale would make it cost 10x the current solution.

Fall in love with the Solution: Management shuts down the project due to lack of a viable business
Fall in love with the Problem: The team updates management that the new technology is not economically viable and asks for an additional 3 months and $100,000 to develop a different solution. Management agrees.

A product team develops a new product, complete with new branding, positioning, and Direct to Consumer go to market strategy. Sales expresses concern that existing retail customers will view this as a threat.

Fall in love with the Solution: Management cancels the project launch out of fear that retailers will retaliate by discontinuing all of the manufacturer’s products and heavily promoting competitors’ brands.
Fall in love with the Problem: The team revisits the Go to Market strategy, questioning the importance of Direct to Consumer in solving the problem. The team realizes that, while it is important, it does not need to be the only distribution channel at launch, ultimately recommending that it be used to seed the market before distribution through traditional retailers. Sales positions pre-launch DTC as a net benefit for retailers and management approves the launch.

An innovation team develops a category-creating product that receives overwhelming acceptance in concept tests and receives top scores when evaluated against its nearest competitors. However, when launched into test markets, it fails miserably.

Fall in love with the Solution – Option 1: Management ends the target markets and cancels the project
• Fall in love with the Solution – Option 2: Management continues to make incremental changes to the product, its positioning and marketing, and its pricing, ultimately spending millions over multiple years with little to no change in product adoption.
• Fall in love with the Problem – Team talks to their target consumers, including the people who gave the product high marks in concept tests, and learns that the problem the product solves isn’t a terribly painful or important problem and, as a result, consumers aren’t willing to spend money or change behavior to adopt a better solution. The team shelves the category-creating product to focus on creating a new solution to the real problem.

Did you see the pattern there?

When you fall in love with the solution and the solution fails, the project stops.

When you fall in love with the problem and the solution fails, you circle back to the problem and try again.

And if anyone would know the importance of being able to circle back, it’s the man credited with coining the “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution” mantra – Uri Levine. The founder of Waze.

Robyn M. Bolton, Founder & Chief Navigator, MileZero

Robyn M. Bolton
Founder & Chief Navigator

Robyn M. Bolton works with billion-dollar companies to use innovation to create meaningful new growth. You can read more about her and her work at www.milezero.

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