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The Big Secret of Innovation

Most people who set out to create an innovative product to bring to market rely on their intuition and experience. This approach, however, results in an inefficient and stressful startup. Before you can come up with truly breakthrough ideas, you must master the “big secret” of innovation – the ability to separate process from content.

Entrepreneurs often eagerly jump into content without considering process. Simply defined, content is what you work with, and process is how you work on it.

Take, for example, an automobile assembly plant. A good company will put a lot of thought into the elements of an efficient and effective assembly line. The assembly line itself is how (the process) all the parts (the content) are put together to make the automobile (the product). If the parts are flawed or if the workers lack the technical knowledge to run the machines, the final product will be of poor quality. If the line itself (the process) is flawed, the product will again be lower quality. Perhaps both the parts and technology and the assembly line are high quality, but if the assembly line workers and their managers lack teamwork skills in running the line (process skills), the result will be the same: a poor-quality automobile.

When the managers pay equal attention to maintaining quality parts, machinery and technical skills, creating and maintaining efficient assembly lines, and ensuring people are motivated and cooperative, then they’re managing both content and process.

What you need for a high-quality result is a combination of good content, good process and good process skills. This means that entrepreneurs must learn to act as process leaders rather than subject matter experts, and must deliberately and methodically work through the process.

Therefore, to master the big secret of innovation, incorporate this eight-stage framework, which we’ve named the Simplexity Process:

Problem finding. Start this step by sensing and anticipating customer problems. You shouldn’t prematurely assume the real problems of the real customer, however, without more investigation. Questions to ask regarding business customers may include: “What goals do they fail to attain year after year?” or regarding consumers include, “What problems do they have that they’d like to avoid?” Don’t begin to solve the problem at this point.

Fact finding. The purpose of fact finding is to have more clarity about the customer problem. List as many simple, specific, and clear answers as you can to questions regarding why this problem exists (and what you might be assuming may or may not be true). Merge your own observations and ideas with any available research.

Problem definition. Again, setting aside judgment, list several optional problem definitions. Phrase each problem definition as a challenge beginning with “How might customers…?” (Let’s say you’re starting a travel company. A challenge might be: How might customers have a better travel experience?) Then use the “Why; what’s stopping” analysis: “Why would customers want this challenge met by you?” and “What’s stopping customers from having this challenge met?” As you spend time on this analysis, you’ll better understand the customer problem space.

Idea finding. Now you turn from the “what’s needed” to the “what’s possible” side of the business concept by converting customer challenges into company challenges. Change the “How might customers…?” into “How might we…?” Brainstorm simple, concise, radical ideas that you can build on.

Evaluate and select. Evaluate your list of potential solutions, then list at least 15 potential criteria – specific, clear and simple – to use in measuring their worth. This could include material cost, manufacturing time, ease of finding committed suppliers, etc. Rank the criteria for each solution idea. Use the totals to guide your final selection. To increase your confidence with bringing the product or service to market, ask: Will the solution be truly desirable to this customer? Is it technically feasible to produce and deliver the solution? And, is it economically viable to produce and deliver?

Planning action. Imagine what single action step you must do first to implement your solution. Next, consider how it will be done — when, where, and by whom. Think of further actions steps that need to be carried out, leaving room for creativity as your action plan unfolds. With your plan of attack, you’re ready to gain further acceptance of your concept from others.

Gaining acceptance. It’s likely your action plan included getting support or approval from at least one person or company. List three benefits this person might derive if your idea made it to market – and how you can prove the benefit. Also list at least three objections you anticipate this person might raise, and how you would overcome the objection. This step is a way to refine a business model that can be shown to investors.

Taking action. Finally, consider what might prevent you from taking the first step in your action plan. Then come up with three ideas for overcoming it. Go ahead and carry out your action step now that you know how to overcome any impediments. Repeat this step for each action in your plan.

To succeed, entrepreneurs must define what actual problem will be solved and how. It’s an endeavor that requires dedicated effort, patience, and perseverance. The result will pay off in addressing a problem from a new angle that will separate the innovator from the competition and deliver solutions that delight customers.

This article is excerpted from the authors’ book, “Design-Centered Entrepreneurship,” which provides a research-driven, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving. Learn more at https://elprofile.com/.


  • Rob Mathews

    Rob Mathews is Executive Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at Ball University.

  • Michael Goldsby

    Michael Goldsby is Stoops Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at Ball State University.

  • Min Basadur

    Min Basadur is Professor Emeritus of Innovation at McMaster University, Canada, and founder of Basadur Applied Creativity.

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Min Basadur
Min Basadur
Min Basadur is Professor Emeritus of Innovation at McMaster University, Canada, and founder of Basadur Applied Creativity.

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