Getting Out of the Solution Bubble: A Simple First Step to Building an Innovative Organization

Joshua Cohen
April 5, 2024
20 min

How many times in your life have you come up with a “brilliant” idea, stubbornly clinging to it in the face of criticism, only to eventually realize that your idea wasn’t as good as you thought it was? Multiply this by thousands or tens of thousands of people and you’ve stumbled across one of the major impediments to innovation in large organizations: getting trapped in the “solution bubble.” People fall in love with their new ideas and concepts, even in the face of evidence that those ideas aren’t as powerful as they originally seem to be. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in large research or engineering-driven organizations where scientists become passionate advocates for products or services tied to their research and technologies, often failing to consider the business practicality of their work.

As best-selling author and NYU Entrepreneurship professor David Lefer puts it, “I see it all the time. People spend far more effort on problem solving than on finding the right problem to solve. Whether it’s scientists and engineers who fall in love with a technology, or executives pressured to take immediate action, people often jump into solution mode before understanding what we’re solving. Overcoming this bias can have enormous consequences for any organization’s ability to innovate.”

Very often, those who are tasked with building the right organizational mindset (e.g. those in innovation, learning & development, or talent development) don’t know where to begin. The reality is that a simple first step is often right in front of them: getting the organization to adopt a problem or needs-based approach to creating new products, services, processes, and business models.

Don’t Be a Green-Ring Organization

Let’s say, for example, I’m a research scientist and that I invent a ring that can instantly turn my entire body green. Completely safe. Put it on for just one minute body. Clearly, I’d be a genius for inventing this, but the question is, does anyone really need it?  Maybe...It might be a hit on St. Patrick’s Day. Or it might do just the trick for cast members of Netflix’s up-and-coming “The Incredible Hulk and Family” sitcom. But you could assume that the practicality of – and therefore the market for – such an invention would be pretty limited.

Getting stuck in this “solution bubble” is one of the most common traps that people or teams in large organizations fall into. Because it’s their idea, because they spent their time and effort coming up with it, it’s hard to get them to think otherwise. In other words, their “solution” might be solving for a problem or need that doesn’t exist! However, the key to becoming a fast-moving customer-centric organization is to recognize that every new product, service, business model, or process that gets implemented needs to be solving for a customer need, either outside or inside the organization.

You’ll notice I said “outside or inside the organization.” Why inside? Because virtually every person in every organization is accountable for delivering something to someone (please let me know if you can find a job with no responsibility and I’ll take it) and understanding and solving the needs of that person is where innovation starts, regardless of whether it’s inside or outside the organization. Just remember that everyone has a customer.

According to United Technology’s Global Head of Operations and Product, Lauren Acquista, “This is not some deep intractable problem. It’s actually a simple consequence of the fact that most people have never been taught to think in this particular way.” She adds, “once they see this bias, they make great strides in terms of their ability to conceptualize innovations that are less theoretical and more practical.”

How to Burst the Solution Bubble

Here are a few ideas that can be applied in your presentations, workshops, and innovation programs to teams throughout the entire organization, especially for those that are not directly tied to innovation initiatives or working with outside customers:

1.     Think through the needs behind common products: One of the approaches we often take in our workshops is to show a series of pictures of popular products and ask the audience what need they fulfill. Mouse trap? Catching mice. Lawnmower? Cutting grass. Microwave? Heating food quickly. (This analysis can get much more nuanced. In a future column we’ll discuss the jobs-to-be done framework in which we think of people trying to make progress along social, emotional and functional dimensions.).

In your workshops, have people look at popular products and think about the needs behind them.

2.     Ask people to think about alternative solutions: As Harvard Business School’s Theodore Levitt put it: “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” No one needs any solution in particular; they just want their need to be fulfilled. You actually don’t need a microwave. What you need is warmer food. If I were to invent another technology that outperforms your microwave along a couple of key dimensions (perhaps cheaper, faster, or smaller) you’d eventually give up your microwave and never look back.

In a workshop setting, ask people to ideate around alternative solutions that might be better than what’s already out there. These don’t have to be logical or practical. For example, as an alternative to the microwave consider solar Saran wrap: wrap it around your food, put under a light and in two minutes you’ll have a hot meal. Answer the question: why is this a “better” solution?

3.     No clearly-defined problem, no solution: Before anyone in your organization can present a solution to others, make sure that the problem behind that solution is clearly defined. They should consider things like: how big is that problem? Can this be quantified? Is this a problem that urgently needs solving?

4.     Talk about Solutions, not Products: In the early stage of ideation, avoid referring to a new concept using words like product, service, or invention. Instead use the word solution. The word solution is powerful because it implies the existence of a problem. In other words, people shouldn’t be saying “My product will enable St. Patrick’s day celebrators to turn green instantly” but rather “My solution will enable St. Patrick’s day celebrators to turn green instantly.” Another reason to avoid over-clarification early on is that in the early stages of creating solutions, you don’t always know if you’ve created a product or a service. This is something you often figure out later on.

The most important thing to remember is that today’s innovative organization isn’t built from the stereotypical twenty-something, hoody-wearing hacker but rather from everyone in the organization, regardless of their role or function. Getting your teams out of the solution bubble is a simple and powerful first step on the path to building a more innovative organization. In the next column we’ll drill down on one of the most powerful techniques for understanding customers’ needs: interviewing.

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Getting Out of the Solution Bubble: A Simple First Step to Building an Innovative Organization