What is Innovation?

Innovation is solving the real problem :: Dr. Roger Firestien

Episode Summary

"What is Innovation?" Episode 67 is out! In this episode, Jared sits down with Dr. Roger Firestien, president of the Innovation Resources, Inc., and author of several popular book on business, innovation, and creativity. They discuss the symbiotic relationship between creativity and innovation in solving real problems. This episode also unpacks the reality and practicality of asking creative questions. How is creativity igniting your innovation process? Do you incorporate creative questions into your problem-solving approach? Dr. Firestien's insights will help you use creativity to fuel your innovation and problem-solving efforts.

Episode Notes

Roger L. Firestien, PhD, president of the Innovation Resources, Inc., and author of several popular book on business, innovation, and creativity, discusses the symbiotic relationship between creativity and innovation in solving real problems. This episode also unpacks the reality and practicality of asking creative questions.

More about our guest:

Roger L. Firestien, PhD has trained more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. He is Senior Faculty and Associate Professor at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State, as well as a guest lecturer at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine. As president of Innovation Resources, Inc., he consults, creates training programs, runs Breakthrough Labs, and has created a series of courses for Open Sesame.  He is author of several popular books including Create In A Flash:  A Leader's Recipe For Breakthrough Innovation and WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?: Better Ideas & Decision Making At Home And At Work. For more information, please visit www.RogerFirestien.com

Episode Guide:

0:00 - Intro

1:45  - What is Innovation?

2:14 - Creativity consultant vs Innovation consultant

4:02 - Book: Solve The Real Problem

5:57 - The Boeing 747 windshield problem

10:05 - Myth: Mandated Innovation System

12:15 - What isn't innovation?

13:47 - Asking the creative questions

15:44 - Innovation and Creativity

17:27 - How has innovation shaped your career?

19:04 - Advice to innovators

Resources Mentioned: 

Books / Articles:


OUTLAST Consulting offers professional development and strategic advisory services in the areas of innovation and diversity management.

Episode Transcription

/This transcript was automatically generated using AI; please forgive any inconsistencies. We are working to provide the correct and more concise copy of the transcript. For urgent need, please send us an email.



Jared Simmons  00:05

Hello, and welcome to what is innovation. The podcast that explores the reality of a word that is in danger of losing its meaning altogether. This podcast is produced by Outlast consulting, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps companies use innovation principles to solve their toughest business problems. I'm your host, Jared Simmons, and I'm so excited to have Roger Firestein 


Jared Simmons  00:30

Dr. Roger Firestein has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world has presented programs and creativity to over 600 organizations nationally, and internationally ranging from major Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, universities, associations and churches. Dr. FireStein is an associate professor and senior faculty at the Center for Applied imagination at SUNY Buffalo State and president of innovation Resources Incorporated. He guest lectures at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine. Roger is the author of six books, including leading on the creative edge. And why didn't I think of that? His latest book, creating a flash, a leaders recipe for breakthrough innovation is available worldwide. Dr. Firestein seventh book, tentatively titled solve the real problem is scheduled for release in early 2023. Roger, thank you so much for joining us today. I'm so excited for this conversation. I've been checking out your books and website and things and I just can't wait to talk to you and get your point of view on innovation.


Roger Firestein  01:39

Jared, it's a real pleasure to be here. Thank you so much. Yes,


Jared Simmons  01:42

yeah, well, let's dive right in. What in your mind is innovation?


Roger Firestein  01:48

Innovation is solving the real problem. And if I can go a little further than that, yes, please. Creativity is the spark that ignites innovation. There is no innovation without creativity. And been in this business for 44 some years now, I don't make much of a distinction between creativity and innovation. But people out there make a distinction between creativity and innovation. 


Roger Firestein  02:14

A story might help. I used to fly in airplanes a lot. And you kind of know the airplane story. You sit down, you settle in you talk to the person next to you. And so the person asks you, so what do you do? And I'll say, I'm a creativity consultant. And they'll say, creativity consultant, well, was that basket weaving? Is that art or like, I'm not creative? So that's one scenario. Take another scenario, sit down and same thing, person turns 60 and says, What do you do? I said, Well, I'm an innovation consultant. And they go, Oh, my God, innovation consultant. That's extraordinary. We love innovation. We have innovative innovations or equipment we it's like, they're just afraid of creativity. But it's okay. All right. All right, not only a consultant, but in the research I've done in work just as academic and a writer of those years. But I just find it really interesting that that word creativity scares some people. But the initial start, the creative spark is what starts it. And you know, you and I are both musicians in the world where creativity is pretty comfortable in the musical world, creativity in the business world is a little bit of a stretch for him. But I think if you look now at every corporate mission statement, innovation is one of the things yes, but now people are starting to come around to talking about creativity a little bit more. That's good. So creativity is the spark that ignites innovation.


Jared Simmons  03:31

I love that. I love that you broke it down. Because creativity, I agree, it's the spark that kind of starts the whole process. It's also I think, a misconception that creativity only happens at the beginning of an innovation process, right? Because that spark can come at any point in the development of a product or service or just in going about daily life. Bringing a creative mindset to all of it is so crucial, because you never know at what point that spark is going to come from.


Roger Firestein  04:02

That's the crucial thing, the new book I'm working on right now that should come at the end of the year called solve the real problem. One of the things that we're finding is that in my work over the last 40 or so years, and working with hundreds of clients and students and stuff, what I found is that when people come in with the initial definition, the problem is not the problem at all right? And there's about a 99% chance of what you think is the problem is not the problem, right? And so we spend a lot of time now helping people come up with different definitions of the problem. And the creativity comes in the problem finding, or the creativity comes in asking the creative questions, right, right, because it makes no sense to generate ideas for solving the wrong problem. So let's put some creativity up front, find the best creative question to answer. Then when we generate those ideas that can be very creative. They'll be right on track and then solve the problem. The other thing is to as a meditation of ideas The idea is there, but how you get it out and get it implemented, and get people on board with it. That's a whole creative process in itself. So it happens everywhere in the process. You're right on. I agree with


Jared Simmons  05:09

you. Yeah, that's such a great articulation of that. And because I think when people think corporate innovation and they think creativity, they think, Okay, well, yeah, we do that, or we go to this place. And we have some people come in, and we get some posted UI. And you know, we do this for two days, and then we're done with the creative part. Check it off. Yeah. I think that's my thing. And it's like, yeah, that's great. And that's the thing to do to jumpstart the process. And that has value and merit. But you can't turn off the creativity faucet at the end of day two and say we're done with that. Now let's figure out return on investment and implementation plans, and all those other things. All of that requires creativity. And it's just integral to any type of innovative thinking at any point. I mean, you hear weird noise on the production line. That's a call to creativity.


Roger Firestein  05:56

Hmm. And I guess the thing around that, too, is, and I'll tell you a story. If we have a little bit of time around this, sir. This is a story about how a piece of scrap metal save the airline industry billions of dollars. And the story goes in the late 70s, a young engineer named Scott kempshott, went to work for Boeing. And he was assigned the Boeing 747 cockpit crew. Okay. On the fourth day of work, this mechanism landed on his desk. It had like an arm sticking out of it on a mechanism on it. And what it was was it was the windshield wiper mechanism for the 747 because the 747 had this unique hump. All right, oh, right. When the air would flow over the front of the 747. As the airplane was taking off and landing, it would blow the windshield wipers off the windshields. So in Scotts words, this is engineering words it goes. So on takeoff and landing the pilot last visibility. 


Roger Firestein  06:49

I said, Scott, you mean the pilot couldn't see the runway on takeoff and landing because Yeah. So his job was to get this mechanism certified. Okay. Now the mechanism cost about $10,000 to hit have two of them. They weighed 20 pounds each that was 40 pounds. And the way it worked was this mechanism took the airspeed. It tightened a spring that actuated a motor that then push the windshield wiper on the window, get it certified problem you need to solve is how to get this thing FAA certified kid, the fourth day of or the fifth day of work, he goes out, they take a tour around the planet. And they come across this bin of scrap metal, they're about three inches long and get a little scoop to him. And Scott asked his guide, he said, Well, what are these? And the guide goes, he said, Well, we had a railing that was a little too long in the design. So we just had to clip these off. So he goes, Can I take a couple of those. And when I interviewed Scott, he said it looked like little scoops to me. So what he did was he went back he got some wind tunnel time he took these pieces of scrap metal and he riveted to the windshield wipers. Alright. 


Roger Firestein  07:50

The first time they tried to the windshield wipers came off the window, just a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. And then he said, There is nothing we could do to get those windshield wipers to come off the windshield rain snow air, he said. And so he goes back to the boss. He said, Hey, these things don't cost anything. You think these are work and the boss goes like that's extraordinary. Now let's look at the numbers of it. Wow. Yeah. So to change this mechanism, the airplane had been taken out of service for about 10 days had to pull the whole cowling off of the front cowling off. So it would cost about $100,000 To change the windshield wiper mechanism and used to have to replace the windshield wipers. Okay, that was a complicated piece of machinery. So it had to be replaced probably about every 10 years. And so the lifespan is 747 is about 30 years. That means if you replace replace about three times, that's a $300,000 investment. And there were 1500 airplanes that were delivered. So in 19 $80, that was about $4 billion to replace the windshield wipers in $2020. That's about $11 billion to replace. Now, all you have to do is replace the windshield wipers just like you do on a car. It takes about two hours to do it right on the tarmac talks cost about $2,000. And if you look at a 747 It kind of looks like a closed pen. It's maybe six to eight inches long. Yeah,


Jared Simmons  09:10

he made an airfoil. Yeah, directed the airflow.


Roger Firestein  09:14

Exactly what he did was he redefined the problem, right. Yeah. So weight is eliminated. You don't have the extra 40 pounds. Yeah, you don't have the $20,000. But the key thing about this, and this goes back to what we talked about earlier, is that your innovation center now Scott did not propose is to come up with this idea in a brand new innovation center. Right. Right. He did not talk to the senior Innovation Officer. Right. He did not talk to the Vice President for innovation, right. All he did was ask a couple of questions, right? Yep. And he had the tenacity and Boeing at that time was open enough to say hey, try it out. He actually wanted Design Award on that. And he said, um, that invention has saved the airline industry billions of dollars. And as I was talking to some of my friends who actually service big airplanes for the Air Force, he goes, Yeah, we use those all the time. There's there accepted by the industry Wow cost nothing, say billions of dollars because he asked some creative questions. 


Roger Firestein  10:05

So this whole idea is in the business that I've been in, I have not ever seen a mandated innovation system that works, right? Because you can't impose it on people from the outside, right? You can give them a seminar, you can give them a workshop, you can read, I haven't read books, but you can't make somebody be creative. No, you just have to set up the environment. So it's creative. And so that's the story out of that. Just to carry the analogy a little bit farther. This is we talked about in solve the real problem, the biologist and in nature, writer Lewis Thomas wrote about bees. And he said, what you can do with bees is you can set them up in a hive have a perfect high, bringing a healthy queen, but you can't make the bees make honey, issue protocols and carbohybrid chemistry or solar navigation, right. But the air has to be right to see if there is an error, right? So what you need to do in organizations is make the air right. And then you have stuff like Scott capsule come and say, Hey, this piece of scrap metal can sit you know, $11 billion later. That's such a Yeah, make the air right.


Jared Simmons  11:10

Make the air right. I love that. That is such a great analogy. succinct way of kind of helping people understand this. It's not the process. It's the ecosystem is the environment. It's the air. Yeah. And believing that you can install a process that will drive innovation, I think is one of the core. It doesn't make sense to me


Roger Firestein  11:30

now. We can't impose it on somebody, you know, you can't. We're going to have mandated brainstorming sessions every month. Well, why? Right? Yeah, teach people to do the techniques. And over the years, I've taught less and less than less than less techniques. And in creating a flash, the book that came out, we give you four or five creativity techniques that were consistently based on 40 years. You don't need every single technique to make it work now now. So the stuff that worked consistently,


Jared Simmons  11:56

yeah, yeah. And I love the focus on the problem. Because to me, I think that's what gets lost when you focus on the process,


Roger Firestein  12:01

or you focus on an idea looking for a preference. Yeah, yeah, exactly.


Jared Simmons  12:05

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. graduate. I think we are birds of a feather in this environment.


Roger Firestein  12:12

kindred soul here. Yeah,


Jared Simmons  12:14

exactly. So we talked a bit about what innovation is, what isn't innovation.


Roger Firestein  12:20

Innovation is not coming up with a new idea. Innovation is solving the real problem. Right?


Jared Simmons  12:25

Right. Yeah. Right. And how do you see people get tripped up on that?


Roger Firestein  12:29

I work with organizations sometimes. And when I've been brought into organizations, to work with folks to help them figure out what the real problem is. And these are large, the Defense Department is one of our clients. My goodness, you can't figure out what the real problem is? Well, the reason why is because you've been in a command and control environment. What the problem is, is what you've been told is the problem by your superior officer. Yeah. And so you haven't been really taught to challenge the initial definition of the problem. So where people get tripped up, is they'll say, Hey, I got this great idea. Get this out. Great idea. Okay, great. So what problem is it going to solve? I don't know, it's got this great idea. And this is why a lot of the innovation programs get tripped up, because you have people coming up with all these great ideas. And I've heard this time after time, after time after time, people say to me, Well, I've got this great idea, but nobody wants to listen to me. Okay, that's fair, that's great. But your way, you're gonna get somebody to listen to yours, you have a problem to solve, you know, Scott had a problem to solve, right? The windshield wiper thing, all right. Now he could have ignored those pieces of scrap metal and say, they have nothing to do with my problem. But as a matter of fact, they had everything to do with his problem. And he could have followed the path and gotten this thing certified. But no, he challenged the definition of the problem. 


Roger Firestein  13:47

I think Jared, in the work that I'm doing now, in the book, solve the real problem. And this came upon me, but a month or so ago, we asked people give us an example of in your field of what you thought the problem was, but it really wasn't the problem. Yeah. And so we get all these examples from business, from education, from medicine, from agriculture, from mediation. And then it occurred to me that the reason why we're so bad at this is that as far as innovation is concerned, in many cases, we've been taught that yet coming up with lots of ideas is great. And that's what it's all about. But coming up with lots of different problems is not where as a matter of fact, just you generate lots and lots of ideas for solving a problem back up, generate lots and lots of ways to state the problem. We call them creative questions. Right? They begins with words like how to or how might I enter? What might be all the ways to so come up with a whole bunch of creative questions that you want to answer the best question and then solve that. So move the creativity up in the process, instead of saying, it's just here with ideas, which is where most people think it all is. The creativity is really in finding the problem.


Jared Simmons  14:53

Yes, no. And that has a lot to think about and unpack. I mean, because it really does reframe Once you define his brainstorming, what you define as these creativity workshops, and when and how they happen, what does an output look like from something like that? And then it also kind of makes you makes me anyway, think about how you go about rewarding people. Yeah. Because I think a lot of times you don't patent questions you patent ideas that have been kind of molded into something patentable. But then if you think about it, asking the right question, the question is, how do I get this approved by the government? The question is, how do I keep the windshield wipers on the plane? Right? Fortunately, this person took it all the way through and yeah, got the credit they deserve. But that reframing probably gets lost in the shuffle quite a bit. It does,


Roger Firestein  15:43

because I think in the way, and this is based on a discussion we had earlier, in a way that people perceive innovation and creativity, it's all perceived around ideas, questions, begin the creative process, answers and it questions begin the creative process, answers and the creative process. So if we're coming up with more and more questions, that keeps the creative process going, now we're comfortable with answers. The reason why is that we're so uncomfortable coming up with problems is because we haven't been taught to do that we've been given the problem. Two plus two equals four, what's the capital of Poland? Warsaw, we haven't given the situation to figure out what the real problem is, we're not comfortable with that.


Roger Firestein  16:24

One of the things I do is I make people comfortable with ambiguous situations, we say, well, what are all the creative questions here? And we make it a little bit more disarming. It's like, what are the problems here? What is the problems? It's like, you know, people, Jama? Yeah, yeah, but what are all the creative questions you have about this situation, then when you find the best creative question to solve, then generate ideas for solving it, and your ideas are going to be much more onpoint? Much more on target, because you spent the time up front, figuring out what the real problem is?


Jared Simmons  16:54

Right? Got it. Now that makes it makes a lot of sense. That's so great. I love it when frameworks and processes and structures get simpler. And you know, when you boil it down to problems, questions, ideas, these are things that are it's plain English, right? It's, you know, knowable things, you can explain it to an eight year old, right? And you don't clutter your problem solving mind with all of this jargon that you have to then kind of manipulate No, while trying to solve a problem. So I love the elegance of what you've been able to create and the way you communicate


Roger Firestein  17:27

it. Well, one of your questions here is how has innovation shaped your career. And I think this kind of goes back to when I began this field back in the 70s. And 80s, we were having some of the same issues were going on here is that people were complicating stuff. And so my mantra is keep creativity simple. Make it practical, help people to apply their creativity in their world, to creativity, simple, make it practical, help people to apply creativity in their world. Now, there's times that creativity can get complicated. And that's on the research side, there's tremendous, tremendous amount of research that's gone out in the field of creativity when I was coming up in the 70s. And the 80s. You didn't study creativity, because creativity was not a field valid of study. Right, right. And now the Southern Oregon University creativity conference is out the Journal of creativity research was out in 1990. The Journal of creative behavior began in 1967. Wow. But it wasn't established as a real formal discipline. And now you have doctoral programs on creativity. We have one coming up at SUNY Buffalo State. But, you know, 30 years ago, the study of creativity was poo. pooed. You know, right. Yeah. And I had colleagues that went over the one to do their doctorates. And folks in the psychology department would say, well, we'll get that creativity stuff out here, because there really isn't anything there. Oh, my goodness. How it's changed.


Jared Simmons  18:46

Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed, Roger, this has been so enlightening, and energizing, frankly, for me, as I continue out in this world of innovation and creativity, and trying to help folks drive real impact for their organizations. And so thank you for that. And my pleasure. I want to also kind of ask, so I've taken a lot from the conversation, but do you have any specific advice that you would offer innovators out there? And creatives?


Roger Firestein  19:14

Well, there's a couple of things around that is a stay at it, keep working at it. And then the other thing I think this is for anybody is just do what you love. When I got into this business, I remember this is the late 70s. Okay, what was coming up then was the quality circle movement or your opinion? Yeah, you know, books, like In Search of Excellence hadn't even been written yet. People weren't writing business books. Okay. Right. And so I had a college professor, Dr. James Warner, and we were working together and I said, Jim, I really love this creativity stuff. And I said, I don't know if I remember making a living doing because, well, it's been my experience that when people fall in love with what they're doing, they tend to find a way to make a living doing it. 


Roger Firestein  19:54

So I would just say to your creative folks out there is that you know, maybe your career hasn't been invented yet because is when I came out there about one or two or three people in the industry that were not doing this kind of stuff. And now they're all over the place because the field has opened up so much, right? So do what you love, follow that passion, and then always kind of challenge your initial definition of what you think is the problem. And that's my new soapbox over the last year or so, in really, that's been a combination of work over many, many years to say, you know, what we think of the problem isn't the problem at all. 


Roger Firestein  20:25

I'm doing a lot of work in medical education right now. And we're working with medical students to help them to redefine what the problem is, because 40,000 people every year in this country die because of misdiagnosis. Right? Yes. And so if you could diagnose what the problem is, if you can ask the right creative questions, if you have the skill to ask those creative questions, then the answer is open up to you. But if you come in and look at the x ray and say, Well, this is it in solve the real problem. We got example after example, after example, medical examples included were what they thought was a problem isn't the problem at all, and very simply just asking what the real problem is, or asking a few creative questions, they get the breakthrough. So just keep at it, fall in love with it. Challenge your initial definition of what you think is the problem. Don't judge your ideas while you're generating them. And if you get stuck, look around and make connections with the things around you to make to help your ideas keep flowing again.


Jared Simmons  21:18

Fantastic, great stuff. Thank you better for your time innovation is solving the real problem. Thank you so much. My pleasure has been a genuine pleasure and I look forward to staying connected. You got it. All right. Take care.


Jared Simmons  21:37

We'd love to hear your thoughts about this week's show. You can drop us a line on Twitter at Outlast LLC OUTLA S. LLC, or follow us on LinkedIn where we're at less consulting. Until next time, keep innovating. Whatever that means.