Stop Solving The Wrong Problems! Why All Leaders Must Know The Difference Between ‘Technical Problems’ and ‘Transformational Challenges’
Why so many smart leaders get stuck trying to solve Technical Problems that fit existing best-practice, assumptions, and expertise—and why all genuine transformation in business and systems requires leaders to give up being smart and right so they can identify, define, and innovate around Transformational Challenges
Technical Problems vs. Transformational Challenges
I have witnessed scores of conventional transformation, innovation, change management, and systemic change programs start by identifying and solving the wrong problems.
Trained to fix issues as quickly as possible to minimize risk and variance, managers and strategy consultants attempt to adapt an organization by finding and fixing what we call “technical problems”.
Technical Problems are problems that can be solved effectively using existing expertise, optimized performance, and well-honed best-practice. They require us to harness well-trained emotions, beliefs, and habits to make concrete change a reality. They can usually be solved through rational intelligence alone.
Expected by so many years of management to be “right”, leaders move to define and solve problems they perceive to be technical as rapidly as possible. But many, if not most, of the problems that leaders face in this ruthlessly and relentlessly changing VUCA world are actually not technical problems. Such issues cannot be solved with smarts, expertise, and best-practice alone. They must be solved by fresh insights born from empathy, breakthrough creativity, customer/employee curiosity, and collaboration—and by challenging the very assumptions that industry best-practice has generated!
We call these “Transformational Challenges”: so-called because they demand genuine innovation and business transformation—not improvements on the existing solution or proposition—to resolve them. They can only be resolved fully when we do not rush to fix them; or even define them. Instead, we must reflect on them, define them in ways that demand us to evolve as leaders and organizations, and that require innovation to resolve.
Transformational Challenges are problems that can only be solved effectively using fresh insights, breakthrough ideas, and emergent next-practice. They require us to upgrade our consciousness—so transforming our emotions, beliefs, and habits—before we can make concrete change a reality. They usually require both relational and rational intelligence to solve them.
Transformational Challenges can usually only be solved by first surfacing, identifying, and respectfully challenging the status quo—most importantly the assumptions that lock existing business and operating models in place—and then systematically and strategically birthing new ideas that fit (and even forge) the future lives, needs, and wants of customers, consumers, shareholders, politicians, vendors, and employees.
Most large, well-funded, corporate innovation programs and business transformation engagements fail to identify and resolve Transformational Challenges. They tend to only see and solve technical problems—just with a little more creativity, digitalization, and foresight than usual.
This is why they can only ever offer incremental innovations, not exponential ones.
Nokia Solving Technical Problems vs. Apple Solving Transformational Challenges
Let’s see how this works in practice. When I first consulted to Nokia, they were proud—and a little arrogant, which blockED the capacity to even consider they might be facing Transformational Challenges–market leaders with over 50% of the global market.
Nokia had the technology it needed to forge the future of the smartphone market. It had the capital, capabilities, and channels to do whatever it chose. It had a huge, trusting, and loyal workforce. It had everything it needed to keep on reinventing itself, and the market, anew. But it failed to do so. It failed the future. Why?
Nokia’s leaders assumed the smartphone was a phone first. Convinced they were right about the future of the market they had played such a huge role in creating, they thought that all they had to do was keep adding extra features to their phones as time went on, add new designs, do cool marketing, open retail outlets… and all would be well. All they saw were technical problems that their existing strategy and planning process could solve with best-practice built up over decades of winning: how do we continue to grow and defend our market share through incremental innovation, partnerships, and marketing?
Leaders at Apple—also a large, legacy corporation by the way (and one that had already failed in the mobile space)—saw the mobile device as a full-spectrum portable computer, with added phone features. They treated emerging consumer/customer needs, that were not yet mainstream, as Transformational Challenges that Apple needed to grow in order to fully resolve: how do we provide the ease, value, and delight of a powerful computer (with a beautifully-designed UX) to the mobile customer of the future?
This seemingly simple transformation in consciousness—that showed up as a powerful consumer “insight” into the future of the mobile space—led to a profound transformation in a global market. The result of this mindset shift— which also brought with it apps and the App Store—is that Apple is one of the most valuable companies in the world. What is all the more amazing is that they achieved this after an innovation failure that traumatized the company. This is a testament to leadership as much as innovation.
Where Nokia saw Technical Problems to fix, Apple saw, embraced, and metabolized a Transformational Challenge: how to engage people all over the world with a mobile computer that was a delight to use and full of value-creating software.
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Industry experts saw through the same lens as Nokia’s leaders did. One Bloomberg analyst said that “[t]he iPhone’s impact will be minimal. It will only appeal to a few gadget freaks. Nokia and Motorola have nothing to worry about”. At the same time, research by academics into the downfall of Nokia has shown that their leadership culture of arrogance was a large part of the problem: [those] who experienced Nokia’s decline first-hand described to us how negative emotional dynamics at the very top harmed communication and strategic decision making. An authoritarian culture of fear pervaded multiple levels of management, producing a shoot-the-messenger mentality and rampant defensiveness. Fearing for their jobs, managers stayed quiet when top leaders latched onto losing strategic options.”
Apple (and Samsung) were inventing a new industry. Nokia and Motorola were value-engineering an old one—not because of a lack of capital, resources, headcount, or technologies, but from a lack of transformational innovation and transformational leadership.
All Innovation & Transformation Must Start With Transformational Challenges
It is only by shifting our mindset from seeking to find and fix Technical Problems—which feel safe within our comfort zone—to being curious about and committed to seeing and solving Transformational Challenges, that we can future-proof our organizations and regenerate our crisis-hit world.
Otherwise even the smartest people get stuck in old thinking that destroys business value and limits impact. In fact, many of the smartest and most successful leaders fail, time and time again, to ensure some of the organization’s strategic resources are solving Transformational Challenges with innovation and not Technical Problems with improvements.
Just ask the CEOs of Kodak, AOL, Yahoo… and even Uber and Deliveroo.
What made us smart—getting the ‘right’ answers in exams and working out how to deliver in junior roles ‘correctly’—is the very thing that then blocks our capacity to realize we may not be right.
In not knowing, in embracing uncertainty, in challenging our own narratives and biases, genuine transformation is born.
Silver Bullet Solutions (Even From McKinsey or Stanford) Won’t Work
Outsourcing the ownership and resolution of your Transformational Challenges all but guarantees you will not, cannot, rise up to resolve them with innovations and transformations that fit your unique sector, context, culture, and history. There can be no past precedents that will forge your unexplored future (even if we do want to learn from the ‘recipes’ other orgs have used to disrupt, grow, and succeed with innovation).
Leaders need to take charge of their own market changes and drive their own innovation and business transformation programs—engaging with potential (as well as existing) customers; spotting weak signals of the future in the present; exploring untapped organizational capabilities; interrogating the possibilities of new technologies; grappling with the complexities of the VUCA world—and wrestle breakthroughs from the jaws of chaos.
Plenty of the innovation programs I have led have failed to realize exponential value-creation not because we didn’t help the enterprise come up with future-forging ideas, concepts, and visions but because they didn’t have the leadership capacity and consciousness needed to execute them—and nurture them to fruition whilst the immune system of the legacy business trued to destroy them and their ideas.
Resolving Transformational Challenges Requires Transformational Leadership
Back in 2003, I led an innovation project for Microsoft’s Mobile Division in Redmond. This was 4 years before the iPhone was launched. We identified, using future-forward ethnographic research techniques, over 50 “mobile software” innovations that we observed mobile users needed (or would need in time). Each value proposition solved a single existing or emerging need of highly mobile customers using emerging technologies that phones could unlock. Microsoft did not action our innovation recommendations. Apple launched the App Store in 2008 with… mobile software solutions solving single user needs using the emerging technical capabilities of their phones.
Such impact fails troubled me deeply. Along with growing client demands for innovation capability training, it is why we went on the long journey of developing our own transformational leadership curriculum. It is also why suggest, in every innovation and business transformation program we design and lead, upskilling and upgrading participants with content, tools, and experiential practices from our leadership programs developed to create the kinds of leaders that can drive forward transformational innovation.
To deliver transformational innovations on the frontlines of disruption and sustainability—to really solve Transformational Challenges and not get stuck solving far easier Technical Problems—senior leaders and changemakers need the warriorship and wisdom required to first imagine and then execute world-changing ideas effectively in VUCA environments.
We all need to be able to lead adaptation, innovation, and transformation. This means we must be able to consciously and effectively break out of our comfort zones so we can be transformational in our roles. This is the essence of transformational leadership.
Everyone is invited.
If you want to rapidly upgrade your capacity to solve Transformational Challenges, consider purchasing our open, self-paced, on-demand course: The Essentials Of Transformational Leadership.