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How corporations can implement meaningful innovation, according to this Houston expert

Corporations can do more than just throw money at innovation efforts. Photo via Getty Images

I vividly remember, it was a typical Tuesday at Houston Exponential, and I’m sipping maybe my third coffee of the morning when the phone rings.

On the line is yet another hopeful voice from a newly minted innovation group at a "big company." They lay out their vision: “We’ve got this new innovation group! It’s me — a tech enthusiast who’s been yelling into the corporate void about needing to shake things up for the last two decades — plus a data scientist who loves numbers more than people, and a procurement guy who… well, procures stuff. And here’s the kicker: they’ve handed us $60 million to put to work. But here’s the catch — this treasure needs to be turned into a groundbreaking innovation that will dazzle the C-Suite, in about six months.”

I chuckle then sigh, because I’ve heard this story not once or twice, but about a dozen times over. And unfortunately, each of those grand plans crashed faster than a shooting star burning out over the Texas night sky — brilliant, swift, and leaving us wondering what might have been. Why? Well, let’s dig into some observations from my time working with institutional innovators from around the world and uncover just why throwing money at innovation like confetti at a wedding isn’t the quick fix big companies hope it will be.

The big miss here is a deep understanding of and ability to articulate the challenges. Innovation isn’t a highway where you can just press the gas and speed straight to Mt. Scale. It’s more like a winding country road with breathtaking views, unexpected potholes, and the occasional bewildered chicken crossing your path. For institutional innovators — the brave souls charting the course through this ever-changing landscape — the journey is filled with excitement, challenges, and the promise of discovery.

In my first hand experience mentoring over 500 startups and corporations, I’ve seen that the magic of innovation doesn’t come from a deep-pocketed budget but from a deep understanding of the problems we aim to solve. If you can view challenges through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, not just through the monochrome lens of one industry, you find the alternate routes that, while not exactly shortcuts, do keep you from turning down dark alleys and dead ends. A key observation here is that solutions to hard problems often lie in adjacent industries.

For example, consider how biomimicry has led to inventions like Velcro, inspired by burrs' ability to stick to animal fur, or how bullet trains in Japan were designed to mimic the kingfisher's beak for better aerodynamics. These are just a few examples of how solutions to complex problems often reside right in front of us or in the industry next door. Right here in Houston, Pumps & Pipes is a glowing example of how experts from Energy, Life Science and Space converge on similar problem sets with wildly different perspectives and applications.

Imagine if the engineers at NASA sat down for tacos with teachers from the local high school, or if doctors brainstormed with video game designers over a game of pickleball. Sounds fun, right? But it’s also where the magic happens. When we step out of our industry bubbles, we find that the solutions to our biggest problems often come from the most unexpected places.

So how do we begin to find these solutions? It all starts with a clear and clearly articulated challenge statement.

A crucial factor in encouraging organizations to look beyond traditional industry boundaries is to foster a deep understanding of problem-solution fit (you can read more about Problem - Solution fit in my last article here) and that means a deep understanding of the Problem. By guiding problem holders to dig deep into the nuances of the problems they aim to address, we expand their perspective. Once a comprehensive grasp of the problems are established, new pathways for solutions organically emerge. To do this you must broaden the collective thinking to the point where solutions from other industries become not just viable but often the most effective approach. My favorite quote on this subject is that “people don’t need a ¼ inch drill bit, they need a ¼ inch hole, and really they don’t need a ¼ hole, they need to hang a picture and when framed in that context, a command strip is more effective at solving the problem.”

So how do we do this? It’s easy, just continuously ask "why" or “why does this matter to your customer” to peel back the layers of the initial problem statements to reveal underlying causes or first principles. Ok this is actually much harder than it sounds but when organizations are guided through exercises to distill their challenges into first principles and more universal problem statements, a transformation occurs, resulting in several benefits:

  1. Expanding Solution Horizons: By elevating the problem discussion beyond industry-specific issues, the range of potential solutions widens remarkably.
  2. Universal Problem Statements: Restating the issues into more universal terms unlocks innovative approaches and solutions previously unseen.
  3. Enhanced Solution Fit and Success Probability: This reframing leads to solutions that are not only more fitting but also stand a higher chance of successfully being adopted and integrated and thus resolving the underlying issues.
  4. Increased Buy-In: These solutions are and are perceived as more novel and thus receive increased buy-in across the organization when moving towards adoption.

The critical lesson here is the power of abstracting the problem. By pulling back from the immediate and specific issues and reinterpreting them into broader, more universally applicable challenges, we can tap into a richer vein of solutions. This approach not only broadens the scope of potential innovations but also increases the alignment and effectiveness of the solutions we pursue.

The art of crafting challenge statements that are both broad enough to inspire innovative thinking and specific enough to be actionable is crucial. These statements serve as beacons, guiding both internal and external innovation efforts towards solutions that are not bound by conventional industry norms. By framing challenges in a way that invites diverse perspectives, organizations unlock innovative solutions that transcend traditional boundaries, fostering a more expansive and inclusive approach to problem-solving.

Turning lofty ambitions into tangible results begins with understanding that innovation isn’t just about flashy gadgets or the latest buzzwords. It’s about solving real problems for real people. This means rolling up our sleeves, listening intently, and sometimes realizing that the solution isn’t a high-tech wonder but perhaps something as simple and elegant as a command strip instead of a hole in the wall.


Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

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