Big Problems, Big Ideas and New Ways of Looking at Things

Last week’s SIG Global Summit in Carlsbad, CA featured a wide range of expert speakers and engaging topics, including 1) the increasing importance of third-party risk management, and 2) the competitive imperative to leverage business intelligence from big data. Despite general consensus that these are “Important Things We Should Be Doing,” live polling conducted during well-attended general sessions suggested that not everyone is walking the talk.

Consider: when asked to assess the maturity level of their organizations’ third party and supply chain risk management programs, half responded with an unconvincing “underway,” while 12 percent admitted they hadn’t yet started. And, when gauging their business’ ability to leverage insight from procurement data and global marketing intelligence, 38 percent said they were “interested but didn’t know where to start,” and 19 percent said they had no idea where they stood.

To an extent this gap between a recognized priority and an existing capability may reflect a time lag, as enterprises ramp up resources to focus on these relatively new priorities. But one could also argue that a lack of progress in these and other areas results from stubbornly applying traditional, “tried-and-true” approaches to problems that actually need radically new and different solutions.

This notion neatly segues to one of the conference’s most intriguing sessions. Kishor Gummaraju, a VP and Managing Partner at Infosys, discussed the concept of “Design Thinking,” an approach to problem-solving that focuses on eliminating assumptions and preconceptions to create truly innovative solutions. As Kishor pointed out, and as we all learned through a hands-on exercise involving Play-Doh (you had to be there), too often we address a task assuming we know the problem to be solved, and as a result end up solving the wrong problem.  The way to overcome that mindset is to step back and assess the problem with a clean slate and from a position of empathy with the (broadly defined) customer or user.

Consider these examples cited by Nishor: Battling a high infant mortality rate, doctors in Nepal concluded that more incubators were needed and struggled without success to find either additional resources or more affordable equipment.  Ultimately they realized that the real problem was that infants were succumbing to cold temperatures during the arduous journey from remote villages to the hospital. The real solution, they discovered, was to take the incubator to the baby – working with a non-profit, a team of designers from Stanford University developed a thermal wrap that kept babies warm and dramatically reduced the infant mortality rate. The cost: $25 per unit vs. $20K for a conventional incubator.

In another instance, pediatric oncologists were dismayed that a high percentage of children who required MRIs or CAT scans were so terrified of the machines that they had to be sedated prior to the procedure.  Here, the real problem wasn’t finding the right sedative option or dosage amount, it was understanding what the kids wanted.  The solution: decorating the MRI machines with a “jungle adventure” theme that included sounds and costumes.  The result: a dramatic reduction in the number of kids requiring sedation.

Nishor also discussed how these concepts can be applied to the world of business and IT operations. Citing customer insight, active experimentation and solution adoption as three keys to deriving competitive advantage, he provided real-world examples of how Infosys has applied Design Thinking principles to helping retail and CPG clients.

While Nishor provided a compelling theoretical and methodological context regarding innovative thinking, another speaker framed the issue in more direct terms. When discussing what backgrounds and skill sets were most in demand in today’s sourcing and IT marketplace, Coupa Software CEO Rob Bernshteyn said, “It’s people who can look at things with a fresh set of eyes.”

Something to think about.