Innovation: How to Do It (Part 3)

December 13th, 2017

In his previous two posts about the innovation process, guest-blogger, Dr. Michael Murray, discussed the first step, “Empathize” (Innovation: How to Do It, Part 2 and Innovation: How Empathizing Saved the Day).

The next step in the process is “Define”.  In this post, Dr. Murray describes techniques that will sharpen definition of the problem that innovation can solve.  Even some of the techniques Dr. Murray suggests are innovative, including drawing.  Yes, drawing.


Taking the insights you’ve gained from observing and talking to your customers, you can Define the problem and begin to consider the opportunity. One can think of a problem as something that is keeping your customer from moving from their current situation to their preferred or ideal situation. In the horse stomach ulcer example, the preferred situation was an easy to administer, less time consuming, and more effective treatment than what was available at the time. Often, there are multiple problems keeping people stuck in their current situation, and for the horse trainers and owners the problems were that existing products for people required administration every 6-8 hours, were messy and inefficient to give, were often prohibitively expensive, and didn’t always cure the disease.

Rather than trying to solve every problem at once, which usually doesn’t work anyway, identify the problem that, if solved, will have the greatest impact for the customer. This is often the problem for which the solution seems most uncertain!

With that in mind, one can then frame a question, an opportunity inquiry, that encourages ideas about how one might improve the situation. These statements often begin with “How might we…”, because at this point, you still don’t know what the solution might be, and you are simply trying to stimulate ideas. It can be useful to add constraints to the statement, some resource that will be limited or unavailable to solve the challenge (time, money, manpower), in order to stimulate “do different” ideas.

There are many ways to generate ideas. In classic brainstorming sessions, people in groups say or write down ideas, often being encouraged to come up with many ideas in a short period of time. The rationale for this approach is to discourage over-thinking and get a large number of spontaneous ideas. Another approach is to have people work individually and more methodically, allowing them to develop their ideas more fully. This approach is explained well in Jake Knapp’s book Sprint, which describes a five day process he developed at Google for developing and testing solutions to crucial problems being faced by startup companies.

So which way is best? In one comprehensive study assessing the productivity of different methods of generating ideas,1 the authors concluded that allowing people to generate ideas individually and subsequently discuss these as a group will produce a higher number of unique ideas than traditional group brainstorming sessions. In fact, there is probably not one right way, so experiment with different approaches. I often ask people in a group to work individually and write down as many ideas as they can  in 5 minutes, then post their ideas on a board. I then have each of them select their 3 most favorite ideas from the collection of ideas, then draw these ideas.

Drawing is a valuable way to express ideas, because it uses different pathways in the brain than just writing words, including visual pathways.

Now, most people are very insecure, even ashamed, of their drawing prowess, so I usually have them do a quick warm up exercise to help them get over it. Once the ideas have been drawn, the group gets together and shares their drawings, providing very brief explanations of the idea they represent. The group then chooses their top five drawings/ideas.

So now you have visual representations of several different ideas, so how do you turn these into a coherent solution? As people have been drawing, discussing, and choosing their drawings, they have been subconsciously creating a story with their illustrations. A colleague recently shared a cool technique that works quite well to start to bring that story to life. The group works collectively to arrange the drawings in a sequence from left to right that tells the story of their success. This is a highly intuitive process, and because their “storytelling” has already been underway, the group will be able to create their story in just a few minutes. The final step is the solution intention statement, which is one or two sentences that begin with, “In order to create (our opportunity/solution), we will…”. Start with the drawing on the right to explain what you will do, and use the remaining pictures to explain how you will do it.

Next, I’ll share how to take your solution intention and turn it into something that might actually work!

  1. Diehl M, Stroebe W. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: toward the solution of a riddle. J Personality Social Psych 1987;53:497-509.

To read Dr. Murray’s previous posts, see the links below:
July 12, 2017: Innovation: What is it really?
August 8, 2017: Innovators: Who are they?
September 13, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 1)
October 11, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 2)
November 8, 2017: Innovation: How Empathizing Saved the Day


This post was written by Mike Murray, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, CPC. Dr. Murray is an innovation expert and a guest blogger on our site. He is a veterinarian, and serves as a Technical Marketing Director for Boehringer Ingelheim’s Animal Health division. He is a life and leadership coach, as well as a certified trainer for Managing Innovation™ with his organization. Dr. Murray coaches individuals and teams to help them be even more successful innovators.