This is a simple question yet observing life around me during the Covid19 crisis reminds me of this question. Often the difference between an idea that solves yesterday’s problems and one that creates tomorrow’s opportunities is very subtle. These are the ideas that may become innovations and create useful change and value in new ways. I see too many solutions to yesterday’s problems with too little thought going into long term solutions. The Idea Factory is an approach that continually focuses on problems and opportunities in order to tackle the challenges that each represents. The dictionary defines problems this way:
Pro’blem n. difficult task or question, thing hard to understand, arrangement in which one is challenged to accomplish a specific result.
Problems tend to look much harder from a distance. When we can avoid it, a problem is far too challenging to deal with. It is only when the problem becomes immediate, that is, when we are forced to accomplish a specific result, an answer is always found. With the sudden pressure comes the need to find a solution. It may not be the perfect solution but it usually fits the problem.
Think in terms of systems
Many short-term solutions can be built into permanent solutions by applying a systematic approach. This simply means considering the problem to be part of a system. That is, if you fix the system, you eliminate the problem. The systems in your business may not be obvious at first. If you prefer, think of the routines that you have to do to order stock, answer telephones, service customers, schedule production, and so on. All these activities are systems, which you could set out in a series of steps. Much of the strength of quality standards is that it forces you to consider the systems and document them.
If you notice a problem, it probably arose in the past and may arise again. If you can separate those problems that happen only once and those that repeat, you have already found a key to your solution. The secret is this:
- Match a short-term, one-off problem with a short-term solution.
- Match a long-term, systematic problem with a long-term, permanent solution.
In other words, do not use a bandage when you need a plaster cast. That would be ineffective. Conversely, if you are covering a simple cut, don’t use a plaster cast when a bandage would do. That would be highly inefficient. Match the solution to the problem. So often in business, we forget this simple idea and end up applying a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
How effectively do we solve problems now?
- We get the definition of the problem wrong the first time – everyone knows this situation. You quickly start to solve a problem only to recognize it was not the true problem. The process starts again.
- We quickly jump to a solution based on ‘experience’ – the curse of the expert. Instead of exploring the problem, the expert says, “I have the solution…” Perhaps. It may be better to step back and create new solutions.
- We select the first ‘minimally acceptable option’ – think of a two-hour meeting that made a ten-minute decision, meaning, no one cares anyone and you select the first minimally acceptable option that is agreeable to all.
- Your solution automatically creates more challenges downstream. This is normal. This is why you look at the implications of the initial solution to see what problems it creates.
- We wait for the crisis before acting – research shows many times when one or more people on a team saw a potential problem but they did not have the power to be heard by the group. It had to become a crisis before the team acted.
Creating tomorrow’s opportunities
In all cases, we must understand the problems we face, their numerous issues, and try to eliminate them. The other significant use for the Idea Factory is to create something totally new: that is, an opportunity.
We use this word “opportunity” in so many ways. We have “golden opportunities” and “windows of opportunity”. We know that opportunity only knocks once! I would be willing to bet that for many businesses, a golden opportunity not only knocked once, it knocked a dozen times. It opened the window and walked in yet no-one noticed. Management probably closed the window, not feeling the winds of change blowing through their business and the industry. With that, the opportunity waved goodbye and flew to the competition. Consider the definitions:
Opportun-ity n. good chance, favourable occurrence.
Opportune a. well-selected and timed, occurring by design.
In combination, consider an opportunity to be a favourable occurrence that is well-selected, well-timed and designed to happen. Many businesses are far better at solving problems than they are at creating opportunities. There are two reasons for this:
- There is often a sense of urgency for solving problems. Customers complain; you need to react. It is an immediate problem. We call this “firefighting”.
- To create something new takes initiative, energy, and time; something we say we have little to spare. It also involves risks to challenge the status quo, something most managers want to avoid.
The irony is obvious—when you look closely at businesses that ignore opportunities, had they developed their opportunities the firefighting may have been avoided by some fire prevention. Secondly, highly innovative companies would not only prevent fires, they would find an opportunity by selling this “fire prevention” to less innovative companies.
To have a problem, something must be in place and have gone wrong. To create an opportunity, you need to put something in place and make something happen. That’s why it is much harder! Unfortunately, too many businesses spend too much energy cleaning up messes rather than adding value with good long-term ideas. Remember to focus on problems but always invest some time and resources in developing the opportunities.
The lesson is clear. We must create a sense of urgency for creating opportunities that equal the urgency we have to solve our problems.
By finding solutions to our problems we can become more efficient in our operations. However, to be profitable in the long term, we must create new revenue sources and opportunities.