Are there problems that do not require a solution?
Within a day I read two very different and intriguing articles based on the same underlying assumption, namely, that there are problems that don’t have a solution because they are not really problems.
In the first article Nicholas Carlson from the business insider points to Facebook users’ outrage at the new timeline interface. This timeline reveals things users published in the past and consider private. The unresolvable problem is that while the timeline makes it easy to find the information, users did publish the information publicly, unaware of the long term consequences. Mr. Carlson conclude that since the problem is not Facebook’s in the first place, Facebook cannot resolve it.
In the second story, Maxwell Wessel, a Harvard Business Review blogger, brings the age old story of Gerber failed attempt to get into the adults food business. His conclusion is that large companies can’t innovate because this is not their goal. Large companies focus on operational efficiency which is for them the best way to fulfill their goal of making more money.
I think that in both cases the problem is very real and does require a solution. Even if companies such as Facebook did not directly create the problem, as it affects their business they must find a way to resolve it. It just requires being innovative and thinking out of the box. Interestingly enough this is a very good example of why innovation is crucial also at big companies (and Facebook is certainly becoming one). There are several reasons why companies must be innovative and customers’ support crises are a good example of those. The classic case of the Lexus 1989 recall turned into an opportunity to build the brand is the perfect example of how thinking out of the box can turn a marketing disaster, even if self-inflicted in this case, into a triumph.
Another reason requiring innovation in larger companies, especially IT vendors, is the rapid change in the technology. No vendor has the luxury of selling the same products for decades as Gerber is doing. This is especially true for IT security vendors: while for other systems moving to newer technology is an option, for security it is must as the threat landscape would not halt just to allow users to stop upgrading solutions.
That said, the challenge Mr. Wessel presents is real: large companies are not built for innovation. One solution for that is acquisition, explaining the market dynamics of entrepreneurs starting companies, selling them to large companies and then starting a new startup company again. To do that, a larger company has to develop efficiency at acquisition: not easy, but still a process optimization task large companies can excel at.
Can a large company innovate internally? One answer to that are people: people innovate, not organizations. Therefore it may not be necessary to provide an environment for innovation, which admittedly is hard for large operational companies, as the right people will always innovate.
One might think that anyone who is capable of innovating will go for a startup to ensure the highest potential financial return. However research shows that beyond a certain and relatively moderate financial income, people opt for other benefits, making it possible for large companies to create a work environment that will keep them. There might be some inefficiency associated with creating this environment but it can relatively easy be translated to procedures and therefore internalized by large companies.
If you think about it, there is nothing surprising here: don’t think about Gerber, think about how Google and Apple keep people and innovate.