Innovate November 2018

Using Painstorming to Achieve Breakthrough Innovations


Written By: David Whitney

Innovation results when something new or unique is created. Innovation outcomes are often produced by following a best practices approach for creating novel solutions or new processes or disruptive practices.

Most innovation-creation methods follow a conventional pathway used by organizations seeking to achieve breakthrough outcomes: Brainstorming – a widely practiced step found in the creative process. Most leaders subscribe to, and most organization-driven innovation practices are based on brainstorming methods.

The intention is for brainstorming to capture many ideas and that these ideas can produce successful outcomes. And along the way, most brainstorming calls for suspending negative judgement so that a bunch of ideas are collected and then winnowed down using meaningful selection criteria.

But brainstorming can be fraught with problems. In my experience, the biggest problem is that brainstormed ideas don’t always produce solutions that solve customers’ identified problems.

Sure, ideas can be great, but what if they can’t be successfully commercialized into products and/or services that customers need and/or want?

There are usually a host of excuses for why innovation projects fail: Bad timing, insufficient resources, ineffective talent, poor leadership, inadequate support and failed execution. I am often left wondering if the real reason for the innovation project’s failure is because the idea selected was not capable of solving an identified problem in the first place.

So, is there a better approach to brainstorming? Yes, and it is called “painstorming.”

Painstorming is part of the innovation process and reflects a best practices approach to creating something new or unique. Painstorming methods produce innovation-based outcomes that result in novel solutions or design new processes or introduce disruptive practices.

What is different from brainstorming techniques is painstorming methods dig deep into identified problems with the goal of uncovering as many pain points as possible.

With pain points uncovered and analyzed and solutions proposed and tested, the pathway to produce desired innovation outcomes can be taken with the intended goal of designing, producing and commercializing products and services that customers are willing to buy and use.

Innovators, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are encouraged to skip ideas and instead “fall in love with problems.” In this way, they can move closer to understanding and capitalizing on the fundamental drivers of new opportunities in the market.

Painstorming eliminates the ineffective practice of innovating around a problem’s fringes instead of solving the correctly identified problem at its core.

Here’s why I am not a fan of brainstorming:

  • Participants jump to conclusions and don’t spend enough time falling in love with evidence-based problems.
  • Along the way, brainstormers become enamored with their ideas – not the prescription for producing commercially successful innovative products and/or services – and fail to pay enough attention to correctly identifying and understanding problems that are in need of being solved.
  • Or, if brainstormers correctly identify a problem, the problem’s size or scope may not be large enough for an innovated solution to produce a large enough return on investment that justifies the time and expense of pursuing the opportunity.
  • Or the evidence-based problem might be viewed differently by targeted customers.
  • And finally, the problem may not be reflective of the real issues and problems faced by customers or organizations.

When used correctly, painstorming can produce results that can lead to successful innovation outcomes. I propose the following steps:

  1. Define primary and secondary customer market segments.
  2. Develop a detailed list – along with a deep understanding – of the actual and potential problems faced by both the primary and secondary customer market segments.
  3. Select potential solutions that align with the most frequent, frustrating and more difficult problems that are in need of being solved.
  4. Discover evidence-based problems root causes.
  5. Test prototype solutions with customers/users.
  6. Incorporate feedback from customers/users into an incrementally improved solution that produces versions 2.0…3.0…etc.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6.

And remember: Stay in love with the problem when performing these steps. To do so, ask the following questions and relentlessly pursue as many answers as possible:

  • What are the customers’ pain points? These points reflect the root causes of customers’ problems or the customers’ unmet needs and/or desires.
  • What else could be causing customers’ pain? Could pain be caused by “work-a-rounds” that cause more harm than good?
  • Are there other forms of customer stress or concerns or dissatisfaction or uncertainties that contribute to pain points being experienced?

When applied correctly, painstorming can solve one of the biggest pain points in the innovation process itself: Ensuring that the output of the innovation process solves an identified, evidence-based problem. When that output occurs, painstorming can contribute to achieving breakthrough innovations.   

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