Transformative Innovation, Part II: Discovery of Root Causes

Author: Udaiyan Jatar, Published: March 14, 2014

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”—Marcel Proust

Mental Paradigms and the Dangers of Experience

If you had an intractable problem to solve, who would you turn to—an expert or an inexperienced outsider? In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey described an experiment where two groups of people were shown a trick picture. One group was convinced the lady in the picture was a pretty young girl. The other group angrily argued it was an ugly old woman! The conclusions they drew were distorted by two different pictures the two groups had experienced before they were shown the trick picture. Unfortunately, our prior experience (often touted as expertise) constrains us every day, making us unable to see with new eyes. The key to innovation starts with identifying and eliminating barriers created by our expert judgment, so that we can spot transformational opportunities hidden in plain sight.

David vs. Goliath and Transformational Discoveries

Inventors involved in some of the world’s greatest discoveries, such as penicillin, have admitted to their accidental and unexpected nature. Remarkably, most world-changing discoveries were made by outsiders. For example, Einstein was a mathematician, but his discoveries changed physics. Most of the world’s greatest businesses were created not by large companies, but by small entrepreneurs who had new eyes by virtue of being outsiders to the industries they transformed. Nike was created by an accountant, Coca-Cola by a pharmacist, Starbucks by a salesman, and Harley-Davidson by hobbyists. This phenomenon applies to nonprofits as well. Icons like Goodwill Industries, YMCA, United Way, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure had humble beginnings outside the nonprofit sector.

Can an insider systematically harness this outside-in phenomenon and master it to discover opportunities for transformational change? Yes, if you are committed to creating transformational change. However, you have to truly think out of the box. But what is this box? Even if you can get out, where do you start?

Thinking Out of the Box

The Blue Earth Network Discovery framework (BEND) is part of a systematic and repeatable process to discover, invent, and execute transformational solutions. Most of us, whether we know it or not, are stuck in a box in the bottom-left hand corner of the BEND framework (A), the Organization-Product box. Our minds are constrained by our current assets and competencies. “This is the way things are done” or “this is our core competency.” This is the worst place to start an innovation project, because it creates immense invisible barriers to the discovery and resolution of the root causes of seemingly intractable problems. If what you do today will lead to transformational change, great. If not, remember the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different outcomes.

Here is an example of how the framework is applied. Mr. Smith (hypothetical), a vitamin deficiency expert, is brought in to help children in Vietnam. His doctoral thesis was on the impact of Vitamin C deficiencies on children. Clearly, if he remains stuck in point A in the BEND framework (below), he won’t be able to help children whose deficiencies don’t include Vitamin C. If he climbs to Step B, he is able to recognize broader malnourishment issues, and benchmark himself against others in his sector. Therefore, he adds other nutrients to his portfolio and helps more children. Unfortunately, his core competency keeps him anchored by what’s being done currently by him and his current sector. His improvements are incremental and don’t create transformational change. Mr. Smith continues to import nutritional supplements at a high cost into Vietnam and distribute them to as many children as his grant money allows.

Blue Earth Network - Discovery Framework

In contrast, let’s look at someone who wasn’t constrained by a product/service-based competency, and thus, was able see the issue of malnourished children with new eyes. Jerry Sternin (a Positive Deviance pioneer) did not solve the malnourishment problem by studying vitamin deficiencies (A) or children with malnutrition issues (B). Instead, Sternin studied the children’s lives holistically (C), including their environment and the children’s friends to discover the root cause of the problem. We call this the Human-Planet perspective (C). By doing this, he discovered that some of their friends were healthy and well-nourished, despite coming from equally poor families. Turns out, these families were eating nutrients abundantly available in their environment (like shrimp growing in the rice paddies and green potato leaves). Sternin discovered that the root cause of malnourishment was ignorance of the nutritional value of local flora and fauna. This discovery ultimately helped tens of thousands of kids get better nutrition without import or distribution costs. Read more examples here.

Organizations and experts can replicate this process by looking with new eyes or by bringing in “outside-in” thinkers who can help executives to think outside the box.
Obviously, discovering a root cause is not enough. Developing transformational solutions can be costly, time-consuming, and ultimately, quite risky.

Can we learn from the inexperienced outsiders who created the world’s greatest businesses with minimal expertise and resources by virtue of being small entrepreneurs? In the next edition of this series, “Invention,” I will discuss how to leverage a transformational discovery and convert it into a high-impact service or product with minimal cost, risk, and time.

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