All Articles Leadership Inspiration How to innovate your way out of BP-sized problems

How to innovate your way out of BP-sized problems

3 min read


This guest post is by Alex Hiam, an innovation expert and consultant to Fortune 500 firms and government agencies. He is the author of more than 20 books on business, including “Business Innovation for Dummies.”

Big problems take big thinking. And if your problem is BP-sized, you need take particularly innovative problem-solving approaches. Here are four principles that can help:

  • Recognize that you need a creative problem-solving process. And that means you have to try not to shut down innovation by being negative. Avoid blame games, finger-pointing and litigation (if you can), all of which tend to make innovators more cautious and unwilling to experiment. It’s well established that excessive criticism hurts innovation and reduces creativity.
  • Open the innovation process to more people, including experts from other fields. A common mistake during this stage of crisis response is “circling the wagons,” or reducing outside communication rather instead of increasing it. On June 4, the U.S Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Conn., took the innovative step of asking for input in the form of white papers on alternative approaches to cleaning up the BP oil spill. Their request could theoretically generate useful ideas from the general public, as well as from the huge community of federal contractors, which includes engineers who normally work on other sorts of problems, but might have a fresh approach to offer.
  • Follow through by actually gathering and considering a wide range of ideas. Create a new, single-purpose place for all suggestions, where everyone can easily file their ideas and they are organized and cataloged quickly for easy review by expert problem-solvers. Staff as needed to insure proper handling of each and every suggestion. Group suggestions into broad families of ideas or approaches, to make it easier for the problem-solvers to review and consider them. Do not classify any ideas as stupid, bad, or unprofessional. Even the most naive suggestion might produce an insight that an expert could use.
  • Bring a diverse group of experts to the same problem-solving table. Pull all the separate problem-solvers into one central brainstorming effort, because they might stimulate each other’s thinking, and also because solutions might be interactive. Appoint a facilitator to oversee the process. Creativity and problem-solving go best when there is someone playing the role of key innovator pulling all the disbursed problem-solvers together, making sure they talk freely and frequently, as they examine a broad range of creative ideas and alternatives.

Image credit, Hiob, via