Don't Come to Me With a Problem If You Don't Have a Solution

How many times in your life have you heard this phrase from a manager or boss? I consider this phrase and its underlying thinking one of the greatest barriers to innovation. On the face of it, the phrase is absurd. Someone may recognize a problem, but not have a clue how to solve it. Not knowing how to solve a problem does not diminish the value of recognizing the problem in the first place. Isn’t the first step of any new idea trying to figure out what problem you are trying to solve? Perhaps the person identifying the problem isn’t smart enough to determine the solution or isn’t even interested, but someone else might be. Perhaps it’s impossible to solve the problem today, but tomorrow someone might come up with a solution. Problems and solutions don’t require the same creators and I would argue they seldom do.

This same type of thinking is often extended to innovation. We often link together the creation of an idea with its implementation. This has a chilling effect on trying to create a culture supportive of new ideas. If one can only propose ideas they think they can implement, there will be a very limited set of ideas proposed. One of the key things I learned as an entrepreneur is that the person who comes up with an idea and starts a company is often not the same person who can grow a company or lead it long term. It takes an entirely different set of skills to implement an idea than to create an idea. Fortunately this allows far more people to participate in the innovation process. Far more people have the skills to come up with an idea than have the skills to implement one.

Nathan Myhrvold, former chief strategist and chief technology officer, created a new company Intellectual Ventures ( His company focuses only on the creation of new ideas or inventions and not on their implementation. They believe their skills lie in invention, not in product development, manufacturing, marketing, sales, etc. They recognize it takes different skills to deliver the various parts of the food chain.

Here at PwC our innovation activities clearly separate idea creation from idea implementation. We have recognition programs and systems focused on the creation and collection of ideas. We have a completely separate process for sifting through ideas, evaluating their potential value and finally implementing the most promising ones. In some cases the idea originator is involved in implementation and in others it’s an entirely new team which carries the idea forward to fruition. The key point is that every idea is valuable and we recognize people for simply putting forth an idea.

We encourage our staff to identify problems and opportunities even if they don’t have a solution or plan. Ideas are the starting point of innovation.


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8 Responses to Don't Come to Me With a Problem If You Don't Have a Solution

  1. Chris Hughes says:

    A great start on a great idea. Thanks so much for your creative, independent voice, and for facilitating the contributions of others with ideas to share.

  2. Christopher L Wasden says:

    I whole heatedly agree with this perspective. Those in daily practice often lack the resources, time, experience, interest, or talent to solve problems through innovative means.

    A common challenge occurs, however, when trying to delink the inventors from the implementers in daily practice. Inventors need to understand pain points in the marketplace that emerge as problems that require innovative solutions. Too often when we segregate the inventors into invention silos, like an R&D department, they are not well connected with the marketplace and they therefore lack an acute awareness of pain points and problems that need solving. This has been one of the problems in R&D within the pharma industry. So an issue we often need to address is how to get the inventor engaged enough in the implementation in daily practice that they have a keen sense of where to focus their creative energies.

    Another related problem occurs even if they understand the pain points and problems and then go off to fix them but have too much time and resources to do it. The curse of too much capital and time leads them to not be disciplined by market forces similar to entrepreneurs. In such situations they fail to realize fast, frequent failure, that forces even greater innovation and future growth and instead have the luxury of long, lingering failures – again, a current conundrum seen in the pharma industry, as well as in other organizations.

    I love innovation and I have found PwC to be a very open and inviting environment for me to develop my ideas around innovation and to bring these innovative ideas and services to our clients. I think you, especially in your new role, will help further accelerate our embrace of innovation as a discipline that is central to our and our client’s future success.

  3. Chris, Great points, but I must have been unclear, by unlinking people with ideas from people with the ability to implement, we specifically do not silo them at all. The idea is that virtually everyone can come up with ideas, ideas are the realm of everyone within an organization.

    This is not about siloing innovation but democratizing it by allowing every one to participate in creating ideas regardless of whether they are interested or have the talents to implement them.

  4. Christopher L Wasden says:

    Agreed. Here are a few more random thoughts on the topic.

    The challenge comes in providing those innovators, who are part of the democracy of innovation, with the freedom to self organize, the access to resources to move their innovation forward, and the incentives to make things happen.

    Most organizations are not comfortable with these issues. This is why silos tend to dominate, because hierarchical organizations are more comfortable with these issues being administered through silos.

    Some of the challenges we have been helping our clients with is how to allow democracy in such a way that you also get empowerment by creating organizational structures that don’t require silos to organize human resources, financial resources, and incentives. This is because democracy is an empty promise if people can’t self-organize, obtain resources, and be rewarded for their efforts. Therefore, how can an organization allow democracy in such a way that they have self-organizing teams, allocation of resources on demand based upon current opportunities, and incentives to align multiple parties towards innovation development.

    The more we democratize innovation, the more we need to rethink our fundamental assumptions regarding how we structure an organization and what practices take place within them. This is at the heart of the open innovation movement. Silos, by their very nature, are focused on efficiency at the expense of innovation and consequently fight against democracy and create barriers to innovation. Also, democracy is messy, inefficient, risky, and chaotic. Organizations must become more comfortable with these phenomenon and have market disciplined structures that don’t let these get out of control but enable them to foment innovation.

  5. Christopher L Wasden says:

    There is a great quote from JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, that supports your overall theme. He said, “If you have a problem and you tell me about it it is OUR problem. If you have a problem and you don’t tell me about it, it is YOUR problem. And you don’t want to have problems.”

    Implicit in this is the realization that we often, if not always, have problems that require solutions that eclipse our own understanding and abilities. The better we are at reaching out to others and getting broader engagement in solving those problems, the more creative, innovative, and constructive the solutions become.

  6. Sarah Firisen says:

    I think that the beginning of the end for Bell Labs (apart from the general state of Lucent) was when they started trying to make researchers work within a commercial framework: rather than research for research sake, they had to be able to fulfill an immediate business need and show ROI.

    IBM Research now has Think Fridays and, in theory at least, this is a great idea that allows people the intellectual freedom to explore anything that interests them whether or not they think it has a commercial application. Another example is Google Research, where people are supposedly allowed to work on whatever they like for 20% of the time. There clearly will always be a tension between open ended research and business needs/costs, but the concept of at least spending some time in free form thought seems to be worthwhile from the perspective of encouraging innovation. I think that Chris is partially correct when he says “Those in daily practice often lack the resources, time, experience, interest, or talent to solve problems through innovative means.” I think that most people don’t have the time or resources, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a lack of interest or talent.

  7. Christopher L Wasden says:

    My comments wasn’t to suggest that most people don’t want to be or can’t be more innovative. They can. The reality, however, is that I think we have to admit that some people are just more innovative than others and have a greater interest in it. They tend to see the world differently and seek to find opportunities to free them selves to think unconventional thoughts. This is why I said that some people “lack the interest or talent”.

    Part of the tension here is that the concept of comparative advantage has caused us to think we need to have these people specialize on innovation and we place them in a silo so that is what they spend most or all their time doing. This tends to disconnect them from the real world and generally creates static thought trapped in the current paradigm.

    In addition, the large and hierarchical structures that we find ourselves in tend to treat every problem as if it required a manufacturing solutions that can be organized and deconstructed and massed produced. This is where pharma went astray. Innovation is a small group, inefficient, serendipitous activity that requires a different discipline than we apply to mass production. This is why large organization struggle with radical innovation and are content to perform only incremental or next generational innovation – e.g. bite-size Oreos, double stuff Oreos, or strawberry Oreos vs a completely different approach to cookies or treats.

    The challenge is how do structure our innovative processes to so that we get breakthrough thinking, that challenges the current paradigm that addresses real problems in real time? Open innovation is one approach to doing this by removing the boundaries and expanding the boarders of the innovative domain for organizations. This approach enables an organization to apply market discipline within a hierarchical structure to accelerate innovation.

    In my innovation lifecycle management framework, the focus is to create structures and practices that enable market discipline to accelerate innovation and growth.

  8. John Terry says:

    Hi Sheldon,
    Congratulations on your new position with the firm and of course I look forward to reading more from you and sharing ideas with you again. At least once a day I find myself and my teams saying…”I need an app for that!” 🙂

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