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Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu observed that “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”  

An ancient insight we continue to learn anew, whether noting changes to the streambeds of our childhoods or watching rain seep into the attics of our adulthood homes. Water gathers then flows — lakes to rivers, rivers to oceans. A constant returning cycle — land to sky, sky to land. It is the catalyst for the ground to break with new shoots and for cells to draw breath. 

When we explore the process of innovation, problem-solving is the “power skill” most akin to water. The key catalyst to all innovations is having a problem to solve, from the Stone Age to today. How do I move this heavy stone across a vast distance? How do I track food rations when I can no longer rely on memory alone? How do I effectively remove water from mines? Solving these problems birthed innovations that allowed people to track the winter solstice, develop early written languages and give birth to the steam engine. 

What’s a problem?

Water is such an integral part of our existence that we sometimes take it for granted, not looking too deeply into its meaning and impact. The same is true of problems. We face problems of various magnitudes every day, almost every waking hour. How do I deliver the same level of service with fewer resources? How can my organization design the next product that is going to keep it in its current position in the marketplace? How do I deal with the fact that Bob always takes the last cup of coffee and never starts to brew a new pot?  

Often, we rely on the simple rule of thumb that a problem is a question designed to address an issue. Iain Kerr and Jason Frasca, founders of strategic innovation consulting firm Emergent Future Labs, want us to dig a little deeper and to search harder for the “network of unspoken assumptions, equipment, approaches and practices that frame and support the way the question/problem is posed.”  

They describe a problem as “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.” 

Embedded in a question about delivering the same level of service with fewer resources are assumptions about the inelasticity of the budgets, and the ability or inability to streamline processes. Embedded in a question about designing the next winning product for your organization to stay in its market position are assumptions about the other players in your marketplace and the strength of your product development team. Embedded into the question about Bob are assumptions about Bob’s empathy for others and the availability of more coffee grounds. The more we understand the underlying structures that lead to the problem, to the question in need of addressing, the more apparent the solution to the problem will become for us. 

What is problem-solving and how does it impact innovation?

The American Society for Quality defines problem-solving as "the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.” 

Stephen DeAngelis, founder and CEO of Enterra Solutions, has a clear definition of how problem-solving impacts innovation. DeAngelis describes problem-solving as something that “gives people something tangible to work towards. It gives them real purpose, regardless of whether the problem is a small one or a global one.”   

Whether you and your team are working to increase the output of your generator by 1% or redefine the marketplace with a new approach to infection control data analysis, the ability to effectively bring together the varied talents and lived experiences of your team around a structured process of clarification, ideation, development and implementation will often be an indicator of achievable success. 

As tiny seeds contain all components of soon-to-be-born plants, and gardens only yield fruits with consistent watering, each cycle of innovation contains a sub-process of problem-solving. 

Clarification is a process of solving problems such as, “What is the data set we need to analyze, and who is the customer for whom we are trying to solve this problem?” 

Ideation around solutions to the problems contains within itself problem-solving on topics such as, “Have we approached this process with convergent and divergent thinking? And have we considered how others have solved this problem and noticed any gaps the solution ignores?

Development of innovations calls for problem-solving around questions such as, “Have we ensured that our requirements documentation is complete and has been cross-checked by all the necessary stakeholders?” As well as, “Do we have the proper equipment/process/team in place to deliver on this innovation’s design?”  

Finally, implementation requires problem-solving activities around questions such as, “Is this solution responding to direct interaction with the user/customer the way we envisioned it would? And how do we successfully track the impact?”  

The problems Advocate Sherman and Sørlandet Hospitals needed to solve 

In the late 1800’s, 30 women came together to solve the problem, “How can the people of the growing city of Elgin, Ill., stay healthy and receive critical health care?” Banding together around the motto “Progress,” the Elgin Woman’s Club turned awareness-building into fundraising and fundraising into Elgin's Sherman Hospital.   

Advocate’s Sherman Hospital, as it is known today, has long been an innovator, performing one of the first open-heart surgeries in a community hospital in 1972. Looking at the shifting landscape of the needs of their patients, a new build of a replacement facility in 2009 offered Advocate Sherman the opportunity to solve for the problem, “How do we continue to deliver on our century-old mission with a new facility for the next century?”  

One solution to that problem was to build a 15-acre, 18-foot-deep lake next to the facility to power a geothermal HVAC system. The closed loop system made of plastic piping uses a mixture of water and methanol to either extract heat from the lake or deposit heat there from the hospital. According to a 2014 Health Facilities Management article, the system leveraged 761 water-to-air heat pumps to support 255 patient rooms, office areas, nurses stations, and 132 water-to-water heat pumps to generate hot water for reheat for critical care areas. While the system costed $6 million more than a traditional HVAC system, the hospital would save an estimated $1 million in energy costs annually, using 80% less natural gas and 72% less water compared with the hospital’s prior traditional mechanical system.

The buildings of Sørlandet Hospital in Kristiansand, Norway, were also built in the late 1800’s.  Rebuilt in 1980, the hospital maintained many aspects of the original buildings to remind us that while health care facilities reinvent themselves, the core mission of caring for our communities is as old as those communities themselves.  

In 2015, the Friluftssykehuset Foundation, Snøhetta Design Firm, and Oslo University Hospital’s Department of Psychosomatics and CL-Child Psychiatry came together to solve the problem, “How can we help children battling cancer to stay motivated through treatment and contribute to better disease management?” 

Leveraging the forest next to Sørlandet, Snøhetta, one of the most innovation-focused architecture firms in the world, developed outdoor care retreats to act as consolatory shelter spaces for long-term patients. They describe the spaces as “luminous cabins ... formed like skewed blocks of wood that extend into the landscape through asymmetrical branches,” which “reference the playful construction of wooden tree cabins typically made by children." The retreat spaces can be used for “treatment and contemplation, for spending time with relatives and friends away from the hospital corridors.” 

Away from the hospital, people in the midst of major health crises can listen to the sound of rain on cabin roofs, watch snow pile on forest grounds and try to find some peace among the chaos. 

How you and your teams can improve problem-solving skills

We all possess the ability to assess our problem-solving capacity and to examine the embedded assumptions we contain about our abilities. Ask yourself the following questions to probe for problems to solve in your problem-solving abilities:

  • How well do you actively listen to others with the intent of understanding their point of view, what they are saying and what they aren’t saying?
  • What is more important to you when working with a heterogenous team of stakeholders: Being right about the problem/solution or finding the right solution to the problem?
  • Do you view failure as failure or an opportunity to gain insights on what didn’t work in a search for what does work? 

While the problem-solving skills that underline these questions about listening, collaboration and experimentation are simple, they are not easy. Apply the same questions to your team as a whole. While having one team member who possesses optimal problem-solving skills can create a lot of value, having one team member who actively works in opposition to listening, collaboration and experimentation can destroy just as much, if not more, value for your organization in its pursuit of successful innovation.

Like the water surrounds us and supports us, problems to solve, and the opportunities for innovation they represent, are waiting for us to collect, clarify, ideate, develop and implement. Let yourself and your problem-solving skills flow, soft and yielding, and erode the hard and inflexible problems you, your customers, the community and the globe face. Release your problem-solving potential like a rainstorm upon a parched world that says what is will always be, and work to turn what could be into what now is.


Adam Bazer, MPD, is senior director of knowledge product development at the American Society for Health Care Engineering.