How to Invent Problems

Innovation processes that develop radically new outcomes — the kind of outcomes that categorically cannot be known or predicted in advance always involve the invention of the problem.

Defining novelty on a scale of innovation

If innovation was placed on a continuum from least novel to most novel we could categorize approaches by their initial focus: 

The approach of inventing the problem is qualitatively distinct from the other approaches that assume the underlying problem is a given.

What's The Problem?

Perhaps the biggest mistake in innovation is that far too often we assume problems are as they are stated. Problems are not a fixed objective quality of reality. They are made. They have a history. We can understand this best by deeply considering what constitutes a problem: 

A problem is not just words. Behind the words and their explicit meanings is a necessary world of habits, practices, institutional regularities, tools and environments. These components are not “supporting” the outcome of the concepts, they give rise to the concepts. Our tools shape our concepts— as do our environments, habits, practices, and institutional regularities. This assemblage is a mutually determining interaction dominant system (something the philosopher Michel Foucault called a Dispotif)

Problems are defined by their questions

How does one invent a problem?

Inventing problems is a critical component of any innovation process — let’s look at some key steps in this process:

ONE: Get immersed, Get Active: Engage

The first step, engagement, requires that we understand a problem for what it is: an assemblage (dispotif) that gives rise to a field of potential solutions and has multiple modes of actual resolution.

A problem (an assemblage) only becomes visible via engagement. Doing a workshop on reframing a problem that is based in ideation will leave you operating at a very superficial and ultimately false level.

What becomes visible (and open to further experimentation) is the full space of “the problem”: The assemblage, emergent processes, the field of potential solutions

The work of engagement involves leaving the space of disembodied concepts — the board room, office, studio and getting out and experimenting directly with components of the assemblage via a process of probing.

To Know is to Engage, this is both practical and speculative:

  • What happens when…..?
  • How does this shape that? Can we then remove this?

The goal of engagement is to become active in the assemblage in ways that you can both develop a new understanding and perturbate the system into new states.

TWO: Engagement Leads to Disclosure

Disclosure involves two things: 

  1. Getting a deep and wide sense of the problem assemblage for what it is: a co-creating and co-determining heterogenous, multi-modal, multi-scalar assemblage.
  2. Sensing unintended affordances (possible exaptations) that are qualitatively antithetical to the logic of the existing problem (dispotif).

THREE: There Is No Switch - Problems Are Invented Iteratively Via Blocking And Following

Inventing a novel problem cannot rely on a process of reframing — this would be to leave the assemblage intact and simply look at it from a different perspective. 

This leads to the great difficulty of disruptive innovation: if it is radically novel you cannot know in advance what it is. 

The approach needs to be both negative and positive: 

  1. We know what we do not want to be or do: We block some critical aspect of the assemblage.
  2. We follow experimentally and speculatively the tentative micro-exaptations while actively refusing what we are blocking
  3. This is an iterative process. We are not looking for “the answer” — a novel problem in one step. First we are looking for a tentative and vague heading. This heading evolves into a path that in turn expands into an assemblage. The activity makes tools that shape the activity, that expands into an environment that further shapes the activity. This iterative looping leads to emergent processes that have an agency of their own.
3 steps to emergence and innovation

FOUR: Develop A Higher Level Of Abstraction Than The Problem

A critical tool to stepping out of the existing problem is to develop a higher level of abstraction. We term this “the matter of concern”. All problems address a more general and necessarily vague area of interest or matter of concern. The word “concern” is used in a positive and constructive sense: it should evoke curiosity, and engagement. 

As you engage and sense the implicit and explicit logic of a problem (dispotif). Develop a more abstract way of articulating the broad area of interest.

This Matter of Concern will allow you to gain a critical and creative distance from the existing all encompassing logic of a problem. 

FIVE: Articulating Nascent Worlds

The process of disruptive problematization — working on inventing a new problem/assemblage is to work across scales: you need to focus on: what gives rise to the assemblage, the assemblage, emergent processes, the virtual field of potentials and any actual resolution that is developed — what John Protevi so aptly calls working “above, below and beside''. The totality of this is a novel “world”.

As this world gains a self-organizing tentative stability it is critical to begin to recognize it for what it is. The primary reason is that in actively working to sense and articulate this emerging qualitatively distinct world helps it resist falling back into old logics. This process requires an act of speculative articulation.

This is a second process of disclosure, but now it is the disclosure of what is not yet there. This is a delicate process — the danger is that you can easily lose your difference in the process of articulating that difference.

The problem is that the world that is emerging is new and old concepts will not apply. We need to invent concepts worthy of what is emerging. It is better to begin the process of speculative articulation with terms that are perplexing, hard to define and even harder to communicate than to default to a standard language.

In reality this process has been developing all throughout the larger and longer process of creative disruptive problematization (innovation). Novel concepts have been emerging in the midst of activities and are recognized. Now, we are speculatively synthesizing the holistic propensities and tendencies of the system (world).

This is a process of developing a conceptual feedback loop between the whole and the parts. It is also a process of giving the whole agency via the process of putting it into words. This is the work of keeping your difference alive.

New Problems Mean New Worlds

Working on inventing a new problem is to work across scales: you need to focus on: what gives rise to the assemblage, the assemblage, emergent processes, the virtual field of potentials and any actual resolution that is developed. The totality of this is a novel “world”. 

You need to actively work to sense this emerging qualitatively distinct world and help it resist falling back into existing logics. This is the work of keeping your difference alive.

Disruptive Innovation will not solve a problem. Solving existing problems keeps one in an existing logic. 

Disruptive Innovation will invent a new problem that is worth having. New problems make old problems dissolve. How? 

New problems develop new modes of being alive via new practices, tools, processes and environments. 

Disruptive innovation is ultimately the creative practice of worldmaking. 

As innovators — let’s invent problems worth having for worlds worth making!

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

Delivered Every Friday