The Profound Importance of Challenges: The Fundamental Unit of Problem Solving (Part 2 of 4)

Posted by abingham on Dec 8, 2011 1:11:11 PM

book cover

by Alph Bingham, Founder and Board Member, InnoCentive

This blog is the second installation of a four part series: ”The Profound Importance of Challenges,” by Dwayne Spradlin and Alph Bingham, authors of The Open Innovation Marketplace, published in 2011 by FT Press.

To read the other posts in this series, click on the links below:

The Profound Importance of Challenges (Part 1 of 4) by Alph Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin
The Profound Importance of Challenges: A Better Way to Organize and Distribute Work (Part 3 of 4) by Dwayne Spradlin
The Profound Importance of Challenges: A Powerful Strategy Tool (Part 4 of 4) by Alph Bingham

Recently Dwayne Spradlin and I published a blog titled "Why Challenges will transform the future of innovation, work and business" in which we laid the groundwork for the topic "What is A Challenge?"  In this blog, we described the Challenge as:

  • The fundamental unit of problem solving
  • A better way to organize and distribute work; and
  • A powerful strategy tool

We committed to exploring each of these facets in more depth.  In today's post, we're going to begin the discussion of the Challenge as the fundamental unit of problem solving.

The Challenge as fundamental unit of problem solving - Part 1

As we worked to create a successful business around this new model, new language sprang up to characterize it.  We have mentioned the coining of the terms “crowdsourcing” by Jeff Howe and “broadcast search” by Karim Lakhani.   Internally InnoCentive used familiar terms in very deliberate ways.  Our customers, providing challenging problems to our network, became “Seekers.”  And our network was one of “Solvers.”  The problems themselves evolved to “Challenges.”  And we used these descriptions as we analyzed questions like:  What was the value proposition to Seekers?  Why did Solvers engage? And how did the properties of the Challenge serve to effectively contribute to its solution?

As we deepened our knowledge of the Challenge and its role and the means of maximizing its service, we recognized that the Challenge shares DNA with the modularity processes, earlier described by Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark of Harvard Business School. A portion of the global innovation objective is formulated as a Challenge, in which a “Challenge” essentially represents the problem statement for a block of work that can be modularized and in most cases rendered “portable.” That is, such a block of work can be outsourced or insourced as an integral unit.

But "portability' alone does not a Challenge make.  It needs other features:  it must be constructed in a way that maximizes its ability to speak across cultures and disciplines.  It needs to beckon physicists to solve biological problems and economists to solve healthcare logistical problems and telecomm engineers to solve extraterrestial physics problems.  The challenge needs to be stated in a primal form, but easily accessible to those that might potentially have a contribution to make.  It cannot be a jargon-laden object designed to attract only "non-halogenated benzothiophene synthetic specialists."  (Well, it can be, but it shouldn't be.)

Paul Carlile is a professor from Boston University with an unusual background in both social and computer science and a gift for seeing the world through a system’s lens. In 2009, Paul introduced InnoCentive and the authors to the concept of Boundary Objects,which sociologists use to describe powerful compartments of information that are both well defined and that translate naturally across communities and cultures. Examples of boundary objects, discussed briefly in Part I of the book, in the real world would include Laws and Contracts, well defined by their very nature, universally understood, and vital to modern society. But perhaps more illustratively, we all recall the boundary object of the automobile prototype, that light weight plastic or polymer cast with the right swoops and planes and bulges --  that engineers, designers, painters, wind flow experts and afficionados can huddle around to synchronize their efforts and insure an effective focus on the targeted vehicle.  InnoCentive Challenges are boundary objects in every sense of the term. Challenges articulate the need, describe the problem, specify success criteria, and establish the inducements. The inducement is a critically important component because it telegraphs a tangible and measurable value to the world. The best Challenges are universal and thus universally understood.

It is the precision and care taken to define the Challenges that elevate them to the status of true boundary objects. A hallmark is the understanding of how to manage the process to truly engage a highly distributed network and focus that network to drive successful outcomes. Well-defined Challenges must ask the right questions. Practitioners must be meticulously attentive to detail or else they cannot understand and articulate problems in a concise way. Well-defined Challenges anticipate the audience and the conditions for effective engagement. Does the Challenge call for a new idea or a new business plan? Is the Challenge seeking scientific discovery or simply new approaches? Do you want the world to give you the idea or do you want someone to demonstrate something physical? Challenges must also anticipate the cultural and legal realities of the world (for example, is intellectual property an issue?).

A boundary object, is a device, either conceptual or physical, that enables a boundary of some type to be crossed. These could be boundaries of academic disciplines, boundaries of terrain, (that is, water and land,) or boundaries of time. The circumstances of Hiero’s question produced a shift in time and space so that an event occurred during THAT bath of Archimedes and not during the hundreds he had taken previously.  The Challenge WAS the missing ingredient that enabled the time/space boundary crossing.  And it almost always is when innovation occurs.

To get the innovation right, first get the Challenge right.


Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges

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