Innovation — It’s About Problems

What Does Innovation Do? 

The most common answer we hear is that innovation is using creativity to “solve problems”.

We strongly believe in this answer.

Creativity and innovation are problem focused practices.

But, what does it mean to say it is “problem solving”?

Let’s take it slowly and look at each of these concepts — a “problem” and a “solution”, in turn — what they are and how they work is quite surprising.

What is a Problem? 

In a very simple sense, we could say that it “is the stating of a question that addresses an issue”. 

“How do we do X under these circumstances?”

Or “How do we solve X?”

But if this was all — there would be little to say.

A problem contains far more than what is explicitly stated. The explicit components rest upon a vast sea of highly diverse implicit factors. This unstated side of things is not exclusively or even mainly conceptual. What is implicit in a question cannot be put into words because it is about things, environments, habits and practices — all things that exceed in action anything we might conceptualize about them in language.

Thus questions / problems come to us embedded in — and are — a network of unspoken assumptions, equipment, approaches and practices that frame and support the way the question / problem is posed. 

A problem is a statement embedded in a specific highly stable assemblage of physical things, environments, concepts, habits and practices that give rise to an emergent field of possible outcomes or solutions. 

Problems are not free-floating statements or abstract challenges. They are issues arising as assemblages and fields.

As we bring into the light both the assemblage and the emergent field — we see the actual contours of the problem. We can consider this duality in its simplest form is what we see in the question statement and its potential answer. 

All questions / problems have two “sides” - The Question and The Answer: 

  1. The Question = Assemblage
  2. The Answer = Emergent Field of potential outcomes (See diagram below)
Components of a problem

This diagram is the basic diagram of how emergent outcomes develop. It is worth pausing to read this article and look deeper into the process of emergence if you are not familiar with it.

By it’s actions an assemblage poses a question: Given these circumstances what is possible? And the emergent field directly offers the potential answers.

Questions Already Contain Their Answer

This might sound absurd, but once a problem’s implicit components are daylighted and understood as an assemblage — all problems already contain all their potential answers

The spontaneously forming emergent field that arises out of an assemblage (the problem) is a topology of potential answers. You might not know all these answers, and in some cases no one ultimately knows most of the potential answers — but they exist as a as yet-undiscovered field of organized virtual potentials.

The question / assemblage necessarily precedes the answer — if you cannot articulate the question (develop an assemblage) then no answer can be generated. Solutions are always connected to the question that generated them. Thus being able to create a problem is a generative act, and one that already encompasses the possibility of the answers that might eventually emerge. 

How Can Problems Contain Their Answers?

Let’s start with an example that we often use. It is the simple problem “how do we cook an egg?” When we daylight what is left unspoken in this statement we will find ourselves within a specific assemblage of habits, techniques, values, bodies, tools, foods, and environments. And using this assemblage of eggs + pans + water/oil + habits etc. gives rise to a vast field of potential outcomes.

variables for how to cook an egg

And as we attune ourselves to these potentials we move towards one outcome (or answer) — say a hard boiled egg or a soufflé. And in this answer, even if we did not know about it, was already there (immanent to the field of potential outcomes from the assemblage). In this way problems already contain their answers.

The early 20th century French philosopher of creativity, Henri Bergson, who developed this approach to problems put it this way, “a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated.” Let’s break this down:

  • A “speculative problem” = A problem geared towards the discovery of novelty is itself a novel assemblage
  • “Properly stated” = daylighting and properly composing an assemblage that entangles directly with an issue (area of interest) and gives rise to an novel emergent topological field of possibilities. 
  • Properly composed = organized to refuse (block) the emergence of the previous standard virtual field of potentials.

Creative Problems

This leaves one wondering — if the answers are already there — how can we be genuinely creative? 

In the sentence that precedes the one quoted above, Bergson offers an important answer:“

For Creativity it is a question of finding the problem… even more than solving it. For a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated — and stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing”

This is quite a radical statement — think of our K-12 education system with its focus on giving students questions to solve and solely focusing on the quality of their singular answers. 

We don’t mark students for the quality of the problems they invent (along with the experimental assemblages they would need to co-produce. Our education system is almost exclusively just about how well they answer the pre given highly abstract questions. 

And in the existing paradigm creativity is also focused on novel answers — not on the novel assemblages that would give rise to qualitatively different problems.

Bergson flips this model on its head: what matters is the creative generation of a well stated problem and emergent field of novel potential “solutions”.

We would argue that our education system needs to focus on the making of problems by making powerful speculative assemblages. This is what needs to be judged — Imagine an exam that focused on working with assemblages to develop problems worth having?

What is a Solution?

If the problem generates its answers or solutions — what does this mean concretely?

What exactly is a “solutions”? First, let's take a moment for this word. The term “solution” can be misleading:

With the concept of a “solution” it is important to be more precise: there is no such thing as a “solution”. Problems are never “solved” but “resolved” — solutions are never singular or fixed (“the solution”)  but a field of emergent potential outcomes. Think of posing a question to an egg — “How can I cook you given this assemblage of frying pan + heat + oil/water, etc.?” There is no one perfect solitary answer — but a field of qualitatively distinct answers to explore and “resolve” into a singular dish. 

In resolving the problem of cooking an egg, we could follow any number of qualitatively different ways to resolve the problem: boiled, poached, fried, scrambled, etc. Each of these would be a distinct approach to resolving the problem without ever being “the solution”. There is always a multiplicity of correct answers — the opposite of a correct answer is not a false answer but another correct one. 

Innovation or creativity does not “solve” a problem but allows for a field of powerful novel resolutions to emerge as a space of potential.

This field of virtual potentials can be resolved —in our concrete actions into one outcome being actualized. (See above diagram). But this one outcome or resolution is simply one of many potential solutions that came into virtual existence the moment the problem(assemblage) was invented and stabilized.

The resolutions we might not like are not mistakes but are equal potential resolutions of the problem. Yes, problems already contain their errors…

What we would call an invention, is not a solution or even a resolution but the totality of the assemblage + potential field + actual resolution.

Innovation: You Can’t Solve a Problem Until You Invent It

But, innovation and creativity cannot be simply interested in elucidating and exploring the structure of existing problems — quite the opposite, the most important aspect of problems is that they are not fixed. 

Discovery, or uncovering has to do with what already exists (exploring the emergent field of a stable assemblage); any resolution / outcome was, therefore, something that was certain to happen sooner or later. 

Different types of problems

For radical innovation to happen problems must be made.

In inventing and radically reframing a problem (so that it no longer emerges) we move from the world of “it will happen sooner or later” to one of true novelty (change-in-kind). 

In this way disruptive innovation does not solve a problem so much as it makes it lose its relevance. The invention of the car did not solve the problems of animal based transportation — but made them beside the point. 

Inventing “Problems Worth Having”

Disruptive innovation involves pausing from accepting an existing problem and the normal process of immediately moving into solutions. Disruptive innovation involves stepping out of the assemblage of an existing problem+solution field and inventing problems worth having, for worlds worth making.

It is a radical mistake to believe that problems are fixed universal challenges that we must face. We talk about “the problem of hunger” for example — as if it were a fixed universal and a historical thing. This error is one of not understanding what it is to be-of-a-world.

We live in a world of situated stable problems (that only appear to be universal — Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs is another great example of a false universal). This leads us to misrecognize what problems are, how they operate, and how they relate to the conditions for the production of novelty.

The first thing to understand about problems is that they are not universal, ahistorical or non-contextual. Modes of being-of-a-world exist across an assemblage and give rise to fields of patterned probability.  These patterns of probability are “problems” that are resolved by actions that make one potential outcome actual. Problems are immanent to an assemblage.

Defining a Problematic Creativity

Rather than defining creativity as a “freedom from” (the freedom from all limits) or the outcome of a perfect idea (the liberty + brilliance model of creativity) we define creativity “problematically”  —by focusing on the generative process of transformation, which is driven by constraints embedded in a concrete assemblage — and the emergent questions or “problems” (fields of potential resolutions) that these constraints generate. Innovation is the collective invention of problems worth having for worlds worth making.

On Being Innovative With Problems

Here are nine things to wrestle with for a problem centered innovation practice:

  1. Novelty — creativity is the outcome of a set of practices that lead us to invent and pose new and profound world making problems
  2. Perhaps the biggest mistake in innovation is that far too often we assume problems as they are stated. All radical innovation involves inventing the problem — either through a radical reframing, or through the development of a totally new question.
  3. Problems are created materially and conceptually — problems are built piece by piece into an assemblage. With a virtual field of potential resolutions emerging from the state of the assemblage.
  4. Creativity is problematic: We are inventing new problems to develop new worlds that can lead to novel outcomes. (If it were only that easy!) 
  5. This is not the end of the story, “the truly great problems are set forth only when they are resolved.” They are resolved as a field of potentials. Resolutions feed back into the assemblage (really feedforward). 
  6. We cannot ignore the previous key arguments about embodied and emergent creativity, and simply replace brainstorming answers with the brainstorming for good questions! Problems are not statements! When we are trying to be radically inventive, we can know what we do not want, but since the new does not yet exist it resists all formalization — even into a problem statement. We need to work at the level of an assemblage and its emergent field (far beyond ideation).
  7. Thus when pursuing a disruptive path of innovation we might know what not to do (or what to block), but we need to experimentally allow the problem to co-emerge with our experiments in assemblages and fields. 
  8. The initial goal then of blocking and experimenting is not to produce a resolution, or even an alternative world — that only comes much, much later — first we need to generate a portal, an opening, an experimental path — and this is where the blocking of old assumptions (critical assemblage components) and the generating of novel quasi-questions (micro novel assemblages) that will help us in deviating. Later we will come to understand what our actual novel question/assemblage/world is…
  9. How do we invent a problem? By co-shaping an assemblage differently to allow a novel field to emerge…

Want to dig deeper into how to innovate? Have a look at our book for innovation: Innovating Emergent Futures. Here we go much deeper into what innovation is and how you can innovate.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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