Ep. 201 – Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, Author of What’s Your Problem and Innovation As Usual

Ep. 201 – Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, Author of What’s Your Problem and Innovation As Usual

Thomas Weddle is the author of Innovation As Usual and his new book What’s Your Problem? Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation Founder, and Thomas talk about why starting with a problem is so important in innovation, what it means to solve the right problem, and the framework teams can use to make better decisions in the process.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.IO, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation.

Interview Transcript

Brian Ardinger:  Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Thomas Wedell. He’s the author of a couple of different books – Innovation As Usual and a new book coming out called, What’s Your Problem: To solve your toughest problems, change the problems you solve. Welcome to the show, Thomas.

Thomas Wedell: Thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me on.

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you on the show because you’ve been in this innovation space for quite some time, working all around the world with major companies. And you’ve got a framework that you’ve outlined in this new book that I think is interesting and can give some insight to our audience for how to tackle this problem of innovation. So, my first question is, let’s start by telling the audience about your background, and then we can delve into the book a little bit more.

Thomas Wedell: Background wise, I’m originally from Denmark. I’ve been abroad for maybe 14 years, try to launch a couple of startups that failed gloriously, and then I somehow got sidelined into this whole academic space that I’m in now. And my innovation work really started 10 years ago when I started working with an old professor of mine. And we started going into companies and looking at what actually worked when it came to making innovation happen in practice.

That led to my first book called Innovation As Usual, which came out think it’s like seven years ago now with Harvard Business Press. And that was also what led to my current work on the book now. So, it was all quite accidental and getting sidelined into things and suddenly discovering, wait, there’s something wrong about the way we do innovation or there’s something wrong by the way, we do problem solving. I can’t really claim to have a red thread of any kind in my career.

Brian Ardinger: Well, I like the book and your framework around focusing on the problem because as I’ve worked a lot with startups and early stage ideas within corporations and that a lot of people start with the solution. They have an idea, they jump immediately to that solution side, and you’re taking a different framework and say, okay, that’s fine, but what you’re doing is probably the wrong way to approach it. So, let’s talk about the book and talk about the focus on the problem and why that’s so important.

Thomas Wedell: It came out of the realization that we are missing a tool in the area of problem framing. As many of your listeners, I’m sure you’re familiar with, there’s very often a need to go in for instance, if a client approaches you to go in and say, wait, does the client actually understand the problem they’re trying to solve, before we go in and just build the solution we have in mind for them? That goes for startups as well of course, understanding their customer’s problem.

I realized that while this is like a thing that a lot of people, they have a feel for, and if you go to some design agencies or whatever, I mean, they have some remnants of a process. But I was kind of interested in seeing that there’s just this, we lacked a general tool and a general framework for understanding and reframing problems.

There wasn’t really anything out there that I felt was both…did a good job. And also, crucially was capable of being widespread. Because I think some of the methods, we have already around this, they’re very complicated.  They kind of require you to be an expert in the topic and you have to host a weeklong workshop to do it and so on. I wanted to fill the gap of creating a tool around this that could really be used by everybody. That’s really what led me to write the new book, which is now called, What’s Your Problem? We focus of course, on the art of solving the right problems.

Brian Ardinger: So, let’s give an example. I’ve seen some of your speeches and read some of your work and one of the examples that you talk about to give the audience an understanding of what you mean by reframing the problem. You talk about the slow elevator problems. Walk us through that particular example.

Thomas Wedell: Imagine you are the owner of an office building that people are complaining about the speed of the elevator. Now you have a framed problem in front of you there that the elevator is too slow. And what most people do there is jump straight ahead and say, how do we make it faster? What people with reframing are good at is to go in and say, wait, is there a different way of looking at the problem? Is there another problem to solve? Which might the better for us rather than going out and buying a new elevator.

The classic example here of course, is that building managers, what do they do when they hear of elevator complaints? They tend to try something else, namely to put up a mirror in the hallway and just a beautiful and quite memorable example of what reframing is and why it’s sometimes important to go in and say, is there a different problem to solve for here than the one that’s necessarily, you know, put in front of us to solve.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah. I’ve heard a similar example in the airline industry where people were complaining about baggage claim and how long it took for the baggage to get there. And the airline changed it in such a way so it reframed the problem of how you got the bags and when you got them, the amount of time it took you to walk to get to the bag, so that you weren’t standing there waiting as long.

Thomas Wedell: Yeah. Beautiful. I saw one of my colleagues in this space, Stephen Shapiro. He has spoken a good deal about that example. That’s a beautiful instance of it.  He’s, by the way, he’s out with a new book as well, called Invisible Solutions, which also looks at reframing, which I can strongly recommend. It’s such a big issue, and I’m curious to hear, I mean, you have a ton of experience both with your own work, with innovation and with your client work and so on. What’s your observation in this? Am I right? Is there a missing tool around this, or what’s your experience through your work?

Brian Ardinger: I think we see the same things. A lot of times the first thing I do when I start talking to clients or startups is around that idea of what are we really trying to solve for here? And are there different ways to look at the framework, the mindset almost, and it’s almost around trying to figure out is there something more there than what meets the eye? And I find that the ones,  the entrepreneurs or the inside innovators that it seemed to get it, are more open to scanning the problem set in a different way versus this is the idea I have and I want to fight for this idea because I believe this is the way to do it.

Thomas Wedell: Yeah. When people fall in love with their solution, that’s always a problem. There’s a good deal of research, by the way, backing up this up, one recent example of Keith Storrs who does design research, he consistently found that expert designers, for instance, they tend not to take the problem for granted. They take, instead of building into the details, they take a step back and try to understand the context. They try to look for stuff that’s not there and that he found was at least predictive of whether people did a good job in the end.

Brian Ardinger: Some of the other types of frameworks you’ve heard out there, like customer discovery and that open up those conversations around the problem too because you’re trying to identify what are the core problems and the pain points that your customers have. And use that as more of a guide and then back into the solution based on that pain point that you’ve identified or looking for.

Thomas Wedell: When you look at it, reframing in my work, in the context of the broader portfolio of things that are available for the industries to work with is, I’d say that the lean startup methodology and the customer experience approach and so on. I think that’s very powerful and that’s one way of discovering new perspectives on your problem. You go out into the real world and you either prototype or you embed yourself with customers and then you learn. I think reframing is almost a thinking counterpoint to that.

So, reframing doesn’t necessarily happen when you go out into the world. Reframing might actually happen before you do that, when you ask questions like before we get out of the building, in Steve Blank’s immortal words, what are we going to look for? Who are we going to study? What problem area are we interested in learning more about? All of those ideas that are really on the thinking side, instead of just the prototyping, let’s take action side. That’s where I feel we can upgrade.

Brian Ardinger: I’ve seen another example you’ve talked about in the past. I think Nickelodeon, it was really focused on this usability experience for their new mobile app, and they were trying to get kids to log on and that they had to find their cable subscriber and get their parents to give them the password and all this kind of stuff. And so, they were working a lot around user experience and trying to change that.

What they found out was if they reframed the problem and said, you know, what’s the real problem here? It turns out the kids were more scared about asking their parents for access to that password because passwords are in fact scary to kids, things along those lines and yeah, change that dynamic. So you’re not really just solving the user experience perspective, but you’re really delving into what’s the core challenge or obstacle.

Thomas Wedell: Yeah. I love that example because Myacin, who led the team, he was actually very partial to testing. He was constantly focused on doing things, but he realized that his team had gotten stuck in a specific form of testing named AB testing. And they kept doing what they were good at and they thought, Hey, we are experimenting with doing what we’re supposed to do, but they are kind of testing on the wrong problem. I think that’s where it becomes really important. There is somebody in the room who’s capable of saying, wait, I know we are in love with this tool. We have a hammer. We’re really good at wielding and we’re using it on everything, but is that necessarily the type of problem we’re facing, or is there something else we can do?

Another way of thinking about what we’re looking at, and this is very real, I mean this is, there’s a lot of research on this topic, but what I found most convincing when I decided to look into it was actually that in almost all areas practice, people are somehow trying to use this, like you can delve into any field that has to do with consulting or whatever. The good people, the good practitioners, they have some kind of philosophy around discovering the problem instead of going in and just doing user testing. Steve Blank is a good example. He originally, of course, came out with the whole work around build, measure, learn, and that cycle.

And then at some point he actually put out an update on that and said, folks build, measure, learn, and lean startup is not about prototyping first and foremost. It actually starts with a hypothesis and you have to stop with sitting down before you leave the building and figuring out like what is the thing, what’s the assumption about the problem we are going to test for it. How are we going to use our ability to do rapid prototyping and so on so we actually learn and discover something new?

Brian Ardinger: So, can you talk a little bit about the methodology itself? I know in the book outline it as a frame, reframe, and move forward approach. Can you talk more about the specifics of that?

Thomas Wedell: There are really two components to it. One is the habit. And that is the ability you have with a team whenever you face a problem, to delve into those very rapid rounds of interaction where you try to brainstorm on new angles on the problem. So, the habit at its core is literally just to create a problem statement. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve for? Get a couple of people and have even a 5 to 10-minute conversation about that problem statement where you try to pummel it from lots of different angles and they’re not the end of that. Did you decide, okay, what’s our next step? How do we move forward, so you don’t get stuck in analysis?

And I think the core thing with that method, which I’d highlight, is the speed because in some contexts. Well, if you’re running a design hackathon, then you have time. Then you can set aside half a day to do a deep dive on something. The problem I want us to solve for is reframing in the context of a normal business when we don’t have the luxury of going to a mountain top and thinking for a bit around the problem and the central constraint there is that people don’t have a lot of time. The work I’ve developed here and with my clients is literally a way to get good at doing this. All be it somewhat imperfectly, but you get better at doing it in a 10 to 15 minutes discussion, so something you can potentially actually do as part of a day to day session.

I’ll delve into the like the second part of that in a bit, but I don’t know if you’ve seen that. I mean, you have the interesting context of working both in your job as head of innovation and you work with clients as well. So, I guess you see both the design workshop context, but also the regular everyday problem-solving context. What have you seen there?

Brian Ardinger: I agree with the fact that it’s very, from a theoretical perspective, to do a workshop or to get the people to work through that cycle, so to speak, and have them think broader about what is the core problem and maybe brainstorm around that. From the day to day activities it is startling because everybody wants to get to that next thing. They need to show momentum, they need to show movement, and so we automatically jump to that solution, to that prototyping, to the building out something. And that’s not always necessarily the wrong way to approach it because quite frankly, in corporations, a lot of times they move too slow in general. So, getting them to move at all is a step in the right direction.

What I like about it, the framework is that it if nothing else, it’ll opens up the discussion around, okay, are we solving the right problem?  Here’s a couple of different things we can look at. Let’s start with this thing and see if our hypothesis is right and if it’s not, we have a couple more on the board and we can go back and say, okay, maybe it isn’t the fact that the elevator’s too slow, but it’s the fact that people don’t enjoy waiting. If you’ve identified a couple of different paths to go on, it allows you to then when you’re doing that initial experiment to then go back and say, are we on the right track? And if you’re a different place to go.

Thomas Wedell: Exactly. And I think it’s so interesting you say opening up the discussion, because I see one of the core purposes of me writing this book, was actually, it’s not just to teach people who are kind of already practicing it, it is to create legitimacy around it. Because right now, if many people in our line of work, if you work with innovation or something similar, you kind of know the suit. You may be relatively okay at it.

The problem is often you go to a client and the client says, what are you talking about? Like, no, get moving. There’s not a recognition that this is necessary. And so, one of the core purposes of coming out with this, is actually to give people who know what this is something they can take, see here’s a book. It was published by Harvard Business Press. It says that problem framing is really, really important. Take a look at this client so you will allow us to do this really crucial work.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, I think it’s more important, and sometimes in existing bigger organizations that have a known pattern, a known business model, a known operation that they’re trying to execute on. So, a lot of times when I am working with clients, they think they know the problems because, Hey, I deal with these customers every day. Which sometimes differs in the startup realm. When I’m talking to startups, they don’t necessarily have that close proximity. They have not figured out a business model that works a hundred percent so they’re more open to moving in, looking at problems in different ways versus an existing organization that literally has been doing and solving similar problems for a long time.

Thomas Wedell: Exactly. So, I’d say the second part of the framework that I offer. It’s really some rules or guidelines for how to reframe, because one thing is to tell people, okay take a minute to think differently about the problem.  The next thing is to tell them or give them some ideas about how to do it.  And what I’ve outlined is basically is five strategies for reframing, and they are built on my client work. So, I basically went out and tested a lot of different approaches working with clients as they solve real world problems. And these are the ones that work both broad enough to apply it to a lot of problems, and that generally proved most helpful for people in, in finding new perspectives.

So very high-level summary…we can delve into some of them. It’s basically. Look outside the frame. So instead of building into the details, step back and ask what’s missing, rethinking the goals. Number two. So, what are we trying to achieve and is there a better goal to look for? Examining bright spots. The idea of asking whether there are positive exceptions, like has somebody solved it? Have we solved the problem before? Looking in the mirror a little bit, a painful one, but asking, what is my role in creating this problem? Not just assuming that it’s caused by some other idiot.

And finally, the art of perspective taking, which is really about, that’s in the vein of the lean startup movement as well. Getting a nuanced, detailed understanding of what other people are trying to do versus going with your assumptions about what they might prefer or why they act as they act, so the essence here is really just it’s five different lenses that can help in identifying new angles on a problem that you can get better at applying. The more you work with refinance, the more you get better at doing it on the fly, and these things are a little bit training wheels for that process.

Brian Ardinger: When you’re going through this particular process, maybe you pick a particular path. And you start going down that path and you identify that, Hey, we’re not working on the right problem. How do you go back? Is that part of the process? Is this an iterative circular process or how does this work?

Thomas Wedell: It’s again, a specific quote I warn against is this like thing you always see it being attributed to Albert Einstein that he, he never said it. This thing about if you have an hour, spend 55 minutes studying the problem. That’s a really bad idea. That’s a dangerous idea because that really means paralysis by analysis. What you want to do is to do this very quickly up front. Then you may work for, you do it on Monday, you work for a week, and then on Friday you get back together and you’ll say, folks, are we still solving the right problem? Is there anything here we need to rethink given the steps we took this week? And I think it’s a big mistake if people think, Oh, problem definition, that’s just step one and then everything falls on there. No, it’s iterative.

Brian Ardinger: Well or that it’s a one and done type of process. It’s the whole customer discovery process. Same thing. It’s something where you should be always talking to your customers. You should always be looking for different problems and things along those lines rather than it’s something you do and check it off the list and move on to the next thing.

Thomas Wedell: That becomes especially relevant for big corporations because there, as you say, I mean, we have stuff that’s already working and what happens is when companies become successful, they stop studying the problem. They think, Oh, we have the perfect solution, as evidenced by the fact that a lot of people are buying it. And then they start missing that the problem is changing, that the context that the world is changing and then suddenly somebody else, like two entrepreneurs who don’t know what they’re doing, they come up with something that solves the problem customers have now.

Brian Ardinger: That’s an excellent point and, and probably a good jumping off point from the standpoint of when you talk about the world is changing. So, we’re recording this during the Coronavirus disruption. I’m curious to get your thoughts on how you think the world is approaching the Coronavirus problem. Is it a testing problem? Is it a healthcare problem? You know what, what are your thoughts around how this framework could actually be used by policy makers to think through a big pandemic like this.

Thomas Wedell: For instance, take my strategy around rethinking the goal. I think a really good example of that is the debate around masks over here where you saw the health authorities initially, they went out and said, you know what? Normal people, they don’t benefit from masks, so don’t get masks for yourself. Leave them just to the healthcare providers. We know that masks actually do help, even if you’re not very good at wearing them. They reduce the risk of transmission. And so, what was going on inside the CDC of the healthcare kind of experts when they made this recommendation?

I don’t think there’s any bad intent around it, but it was just, they were focused on the goal called let’s make sure there’s no mosque story because the health care providers really need them. And so, like an overbearing parent though, in a way, you go out and communicate to the children out there. I positioned this a bit provocatively. Oh, this is not going to work. I think there is a very good point made by Senator Fecke here in New York Times recently, more earlier in John Barry’s book around the Great Influenza that your goal, when you are an authority in a crisis is not just to manage the crisis. It is also, and perhaps even more importantly, to maintain the public’s trust in you.

Because if people stop thinking that the CDC’s recommendations are not to be quite trusted, then they lose the only level they have. It’s hard to second guess what’s going on at the moment. I feel rather it’s easy to second guess, maybe too easy, but I do think it’s a good question what would have happened had people gone out and set us, said, folks masks help, but healthcare people need them more than you do, and if you have spare, please donate them to your local hospitals. That would have been a different goal to pursue. That’s at least one example of where I thought the Coronavirus was kind of sadly illustrating some of the points that I’m making around problem solving.

Brian Ardinger: Well, it goes back to the idea of how you reframe the problem and reframe what you’re actually asking or trying to solve for. And making sure that’s in line with the reality of what you need to do.

Thomas Wedell: I’d say the coronavirus situation also illustrates the importance of that very early stage of when a problem is being formed for frame, because it’s only in school that problems come through as predefined, you know, solve this question. In reality problems are always messy in the start.  They kind of like, there’s conflicting signals. Is this a problem? How big a problem is it? Is it even real? Is this something we need to do something about or can we just like play wait and see? And you can see, I think when you compare different nations, you can see the difference it makes whether a leader early on goes in and says, folks, this is a problem. This is a real problem, and we need to figure out what to do about it versus the countries that took longer to react to it.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: Thomas, I love talking about this. If people want to find out more about yourself or about the book? What’s the best way to do that?

Thomas Wedell: The book is called What’s Your Problem. It’s available wherever you buy books, and if you want more information, you can check out the website called howtoreframe.com. There’s both a bit more about the book there and also some free resources for download. And so on.

Brian Ardinger: Well Thomas, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with you.

Thomas Wedell: Likewise. Thanks, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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Ep. 201 – Thomas Wedell-...