All of us face business problems. In the field of innovation, we encounter problems in how to interact with customers, which features to include in a new product, and how to lead successful teams. Every problem we face can result in moving along a path toward more success or can leave us stagnant in the status quo.
Experts teach tat the most effective way to be successful in problem-solving is to follow a rigorous methodology. Too often, we grab the first (apparently) viable solution and run with it. Yet, there is a cost to expediency, and we may not find the best answer is the same as the first answer.
In this post, we introduce the 'ITEM' method for problem-solving. It is especially useful in addressing innovation challenges and provides a structured framework for problem-solving. You can use the ITEM method for simple or complex issues. It's also totally appropriate to cascade the ITEM method of problem-solving when you face certain challenges that are layers to several depths of varying issues.
The ITEM Method
First, let's define the ITEM method. It stands for:
- I – Initiate,
- T– Tune,
- E – Evaluate, and
- M – Measure.
The first, and perhaps most important step, in problem-solving is to recognize and define the problem. In initiating, you clarify exactly what the challenge is, who are the stakeholders, and why the problem is important.
Frequently, teams will skip the initiating step in problem-solving. It's more fun to jump to brainstorming solutions and we feel good when we can offer help. Moreover, senior management might be pressing for a quick solution, so instead of fully investigating the question, we give the first answer that jumps into our heads.
A few years ago, JCPenney hired a former Apple executive to take over the struggling retailer. Ron Johnson jumped into implementing the first solution that occurred to him based on his prior experiences. It was also expedient to roll out new store designs across the board rather than conduct small tests and wait for the data.
Unfortunately, customers at JCPenney didn't like the 'upscale' changes and Johnson's term as CEO lasted just 17 months. Without initiating a deep discussion of the true problem, the solution might be way off base. Download a list of questions to ask and to investigate when you are initiating a problem-solving effort with the ITEM method.
Once you've explored what the problem really is, you can begin to tune or clarify the goals of your problem-solving effort. Again, the most effective solutions come from systems or frameworks that offer structure and consistency to a problem-solving methodology.
In tuning, we can collect and analyze data that support the validity and importance of the problem. This is an especially important step in new product development (NPD), and unfortunately, a step that is often overlooked. Assuming a homogenous market, for example, can be fatal in designing new features to solve customer problems. Innovation teams will gather customer feedback during the tuning phase of the ITEM problem-solving method. You want to observe how customers solve the challenge currently. You should create a customer journey map documenting how customers realize they have a problem, what potential solutions they investigate, which factors are most important in choosing a solution, and how they feel in deploying the selected choice.
Of course, a customer should use a problem-solving method (like ITEM) to evaluate their own choice and to make the best product selection. However, many of our consumer purchases are based on emotion and other factors.
For instance, I recently made a decision to purchase a car, with my final decision based on price. I had narrowed the choices to a couple of similar models, but the dealer at one manufacturer offered a locked-in price $2,000 less than the other brand. In this case, my consumer decision was a price-based one. And, of course, money is always an emotional decision at its core. Be sure to consider financial impacts and the emotional pull it has on your customers as they make new product decisions.
As I eluded above, I had narrowed down my choice of new cars to two brands/models. I had already completed the evaluation step of the ITEM problem-solving method at this point. Evaluate means to consider as many potential solutions as possible.
This is the phase where innovation teams deploy creative thinking and brainstorming. Using a team, including potential customers, to come up with a lot of alternatives can better inform the final decision. Divergent thinking is supported by a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Tools like brainstorming, brainwriting, and affinity diagrams can help an innovation team craft novel concepts to address customer problems.
You'll want to ask what the pain points are for the customer currently and identify the ultimate, ideal solution – whether it is theoretically possible or not. You'll also want to consider the absolute simplest and least sophisticated set of features that will meet the customer needs. This is called a minimally viable product (MVP) and allows inexpensive market testing of new ideas.
Other questions to add to evaluation include how the customer will find and purchase the product, how will it be delivered to the customer, and what sort of training is required. In many cases, the end-user of a product is not the same as the purchaser and we need to reflect those decisions in our problem-solving effort. (Download the questions for each step in the ITEM method.)
Finally, once you've decided on which solution is best by evaluating lots of alternatives, you measure the appropriateness of your decision. Of course, the primary measure of success in problem-solving is that that the problem no loner exists. A secondary consideration is that there are no side issues that crept up due to implementing the initial solution. For instance, pharmaceutical companies use a product gamma test to ensure that the medicine cures the disease by that no other side effects arise (e.g. nausea, dizziness).
Measure of success for an NPD team are often focused on the project's triple constraint: scope, schedule, and cost. However, the team should also build in quality metrics and market growth measures for a new product development project. Market penetration and market share are often variables that are tracked, along with sales volume and unit price, to determine profitability. The innovation team wants to showcase a high return on investment (ROI) and is most successful when following a rigorous, customer-focused problem-solving framework.
ITEM for Problem-Solving
Problems appear all the time in our business and personal lives. Using a structured framework leads to better outcomes in addressing issues, especially complex challenges with sophisticated technologies. The 'ITEM' Method (initiate, tune, evaluate, and measure) is a structured problem-solving framework that forces you to clearly identify the right problems and its characteristics before generating solutions. Moreover, in evaluating and combining lots of alternative solutions, you will create a better solution than simply choosing the most expedient one at the start.
The ITEM method is cyclical in that as you measure your results in solving a problem, you may identify additional market issues. The ITEM method cascades for complex problems yet offers simple solutions with a minimally viable product.
Apply ITEM and Learn More
If you haven't already done so, download the ITEM checklist for new product development below. It is helpful in solving any problems but especially useful for new product development challenges. You'll also want to sign up for the Innovation Master Mind (IMM) pilot on 23 January 2019 as we demonstrate the power of group problem-solving methods designed around the ITEM framework. (Use the code 'pilot' at checkout for a full discount of $300!) The IMM helps innovation leaders, NPD managers, and R&D directors achieve higher levels of success in their new product development programs. You can join the introductory IMM group here. Feel free to contact me directly for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717. I love helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their highest strategic innovation goals!
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