How to Leave Problems

make new problems for worlds worth inventing

If we are interested in engaging with a disruptive innovation process then we cannot begin by accepting the problem as is — but we need to assume that the problem must be invented. 

The issue is that if we accept the problem as developed (both explicitly in concepts and implicitly in practices, tools and environments) we will very likely come up with one of the many already existing answers. 

Nothing significant will change without imagining that we can evolve away from an existing problem and iteratively invent a new and wholly distinct problem.

Disruptive innovation practices involve the invention of “problems worth having for worlds worth making”.  There are (at least) five critical practices that you need engage with to help invent a novel problem and ultimately a novel world:

  1. Engage
  2. Disclose
  3. Blocking & Following
  4. Abstraction
  5. Worlding. 

We have written quite a bit about the first three (Innovation Design), but less so about how to do the processes of Abstraction and Worlding. Let’s dig into the techniques of abstraction (we will address Worlding in a future essay.

Abstracting into Innovation

One of the problems with problems as the concept is commonly used is that problems are assumed to have a:

  1. Objective character (e.g. Maslow’s definition of universal human needs), and…
  2. Can and must be clearly understood for effective engagement. 

Neither of these assumptions is correct: problems arise from specific historical situations and they cannot be fully articulated. 

Problems have the sneaky characteristic of appearing objective and obvious which leads one to habitually accepting the problem as a given. 

How can we avoid this? 

One useful technique is to develop a higher, more abstract and more general “understanding” of the problem. Let’s take a look at this:

Develop A Higher Level Of Abstraction Than The Problem

During the process of innovation one of the key tasks is the stepping back, and stepping away from assuming the problem to be objective and all encompassing. 

An example of this trap is the problem of “human needs”. It is often taken for granted from Maslow that all humans have a fixed set of needs that must be met (the problem). These needs are things like: physiological needs, cognitive needs, belonging needs etc. 

But, are these really objective? Is this the only way to engage with humans at this level? The social historian, critic and philosopher Ivan Illich has written extensively on how the problem of needs was developed and how it shapes our contemporary landscape. 

As we begin to Engage with a problem — say this problem of “how do we better satisfy human needs?” A process of critical and experimental Disclosure would lead us to an understanding of the historical nature of this problem and how it has become an assemblage of tools, techniques, concepts, habits, practices, institutions and specific environments. 

We are no longer beholden to the illusion that this is The Problem — we are open to creative processes that could take us beyond this paradigm and world. 

A critical part of this process of gaining a critical and creative distance from the problem (assemblage) is developing a more abstract, and general way experimentally stating the “concern”.

We call this “developing a matter of concern”. The word “concern” is used in a positive and constructive sense: it should evoke a general curiosity, and engagement beyond knowledge. Concern is the general quality of a situation before it becomes fixed into an assemblage. A concern arises as things develop and originate in the event itself. 

But, before getting to complicated — let’s keep things simple: 

  1. All problems address a more general and necessarily vague area of interest or matter of concern (MoC). 
  2. Developing a Matter of Concern will allow you to gain a critical and creative distance from the existing all-encompassing logic of the problem you are confronting; Creatively and iteratively moving beyond it to invent a different problem.
  3. A matter of concern is never perfectly or finally defined. It is an abstraction you test and it will necessarily co-evolve with the innovation process.

An Example of Developing a Matter of Concern:

Say you have a seemingly simple problem: “this chair is terrible for my back”. 

  1. Before jumping to a solution — say “add a better lumbar support to the chair design”. 
  2. Step back and ask: “what are chairs + bodies + specific environments & practices in general concerned with?” 
  3. Now test out experimentally a MoC— for example: “the concern is holding a body in repose”. This is a good first attempt, don’t stop — develop a number of these to test and evolve. How do we test? Does it encompass broadly a multiplicity of related problems without becoming too vague to be actionable? 
  4. From this we can see that there are many existing distinct ways of forming this into specific problems: e.g. the problem of holding an individual body off the ground, upright and augmenting the skeleton with external support— this is basically the problem of our chair like furniture. And one of many potential solutions to this problem would be the office chair.
  5. Now begin to Disclose existing problems/approaches/assemblage that engage with the MoC. How many can you discover and define? Now you can experimentally block aspects of these and develop iteratively a new problem/assemblage by asking unintended capacities “what are other ways that some thing could be “held in repose”?
  6. Each aspect of this question can become a space of experimentation: What could we mean by “some thing”? What could we mean by “repose”. But, these cannot be treated as abstract conceptual questions that could be answered via a proposal. They are experiments in making and doing that shift assemblages and lead to unexpected novel emergences that can be followed.
  7. Developing the matter of concern (MoC) is an ongoing creative act — as you engage and sense the implicit and explicit logic of a problem (Dispotif) your sense of the MoC will also evolve. It is important to keep this dialog between your problem, its emerging world, and the MoC dynamic. 

This is a simplified version of this technique that threads its way throughout the innovation process. It is useful to start with simple examples and simple experiments. 

Try this MoC technique of abstraction out on various parts of our everyday experience, ask:

“What is one way of articulating the matter of concern in ___________?” 

(Say, using a fork, washing dishes, or wearing socks). You will be surprised by how liberating this process can be — especially if it is tied directly to an experimental process of disclosing, blocking and following. 

Practice is critical. And as you test this out — come back to Maslow and the problem of universal human needs — how can you step out of this very situated and historical problem? What is the matter of concern? Test some out, look to other modes of being alive both historically and anthropologically for inspiration. Put these to experimental work — where can it take you? 

Remember — there is no one way to define a matter of concern, it is an experimental and creative act to help with the process of problem invention. It is a tool to help innovate — it is not an end in itself, nor is it a new problem, and certainly not any form of solution. 

Let's invent and co-evolve problems worth having for worlds worth making and becoming.

Note: Concern here is used in the sense developed by the Quakers and utilized by the early philosopher of creativity A. N. Whitehead (see his wonderful book, Adventure of Ideas— and jump to chapter 11 for this discussion).

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The Innovation Design Approach is leadership's blueprint for organizational innovation. Detailing the why and how to innovate across inter-disciplinary teams using approaches, tools, and practices.