• Rachel Kuhr Conn

9 Steps Innovation Teams Can Take To Identify Problems Worth Solving

In the startup world, you’ll often hear that a big reason any given startup fails is that they’re a “product in search of a problem to solve.” This is widely known as a solution-first approach, and it applies to innovation, too.


Let me explain...


At its core, innovation is about solving problems, which is why most organizational approaches to innovation don’t make good sense. In my years as a corporate innovation consultant, I continuously saw companies take a solution-first approach to innovation, meaning they pursue an idea before determining the problem, or they call for ideas then match it to a problem later.


This approach to innovation is a big reason why so many corporate innovations fail. I always encourage my clients and partners to take a step back and embark on a journey to discover problems before ideation happens. I call this approach “problem-forward innovation,” and it requires taking the time to research, validate and articulate problems that are worth solving.



Doing this gives clarity and direction to the very employees who you’re reaching out to for ideas and gives them a jumping off point for brainstorming, often guiding them toward more creative solutions. While there are many different ways to identify problems worth solving, I prefer to keep it simple and recommend this problem-forward approach to get you started.


Here are nine steps innovation teams can take to identify problems worth solving:

  1. Talk to your customers. It always starts here. Interview as many customers as you can with the goal of listening and understanding.

  2. Gather information on pain points. Ask your customers about their day-to-day activities, what challenges they face and how they’re trying to solve those now.

  3. Dig deep into what your customer wants to accomplish. It’s important to ask follow-up questions and understand how solving any given challenge could impact their work.

  4. Verify pains exist among many customers. In order to know whether or not a problem is even worth solving, you must first understand the breadth of the problem.

  5. Synthesize your findings. Start with organizing and grouping all questions and responses then distilling commonalities and themes.

  6. Determine the root cause of each pain point. Getting down to the crux of the issue helps your innovation team ideate, validate and solve.

  7. Decide what problems you can and want to solve. These are your opportunities. In Productable, we call these Opportunity Areas, and they help your team focus.

  8. Craft a well-articulated problem statement. Clearly describing the problem at hand as well as the opportunity in front of you gives clarity and direction to your team.

  9. Align with leadership on problems and outcomes. After you’ve identified problems, it’s critical to work with leadership to define your desired outcomes.



I recommend the problem-forward approach to innovation for many reasons, but mostly because it helps you to avoid developing a product that’s in search of a problem to solve. Starting your innovation process with problem solving puts your customers first and gives your innovation teams the direction they need to be creative problem solvers.


Rachel Kuhr Conn is an entrepreneur, intrapreneur, researcher, world-traveler and lifelong academic dedicated to making true transformation easier for all. She founded Productable after perfecting her own innovation process for Mark Cuban’s portfolio of startups and is on a mission to help the world’s largest organizations drive fearless experimentation.

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