Problems are beautiful, just look at them as “difficult questions proposed for solutions.” (The Creativity Suite. Episode 7)

Interview with Henning Trill, VP Head of Corporate Innovation at Bayer.



“If you think about it, the creative process actually starts with a problem. Since we know this, then why don’t we spend more time exploring how to best find, define, and describe problems?”

That was the core question that led me to a more than one-hour-long discussion about problems with Henning Trill, VP Head of Corporate Innovation at Bayer. Bayer, of course, is a Life Science company with a more than 150-year history and over 100,000 employees working in Pharmaceuticals, Consumer Health, Crop Science and the Animal Health business unit.

“We” in the question above is all of us working in innovation.

As Head of Corporate Innovation at Bayer Henning Trill spends a lot of time thinking about problems, specifically around how Bayer can become better at finding the right problems to solve through innovation. In the recent years they have changed how they approach innovation by putting a greater value on problem definition.

Henning told me that Bayer used to have a platform for ideation (just like many other companies have) where the focus was on asking people to come up with ideas. The program was ok and generated quite a lot of ideas. But out of the 2000 ideas generated almost 60% of them were workplace-related ideas, less than 50 different ideas were implemented and about 4 led to patents.

The problem was also that by asking people to come up with ideas people came up with a lot of random ideas that often did not solve a strategic problem, and when the innovation team would come to the specific business unit that could benefit from the idea they were often met with a lukewarm response, as the business unit just felt that they were presented with a random idea.

So Bayer advanced the system.

Instead of asking people to come up with ideas, they created a platform (WeSolve) for all employees, to describe their greatest challenges or problems. While this approach ramped up very slow since people were not used to placing their “problems” into the public, to date more than 500 challenges were submitted with an average of 20 ideas per challenge. So more than 10 000 ideas submitted – over a similar timeframe. And the ideas were very useful because now they were generated as solutions to problems.

(COMMENT: In the end, It is good to have both opportunities, because once in a while really disruptive thoughts might pop up an idea platform, that is very relevant although no one was looking for them…)

Problems trigger ideas. The classic example being Archimedes thinking about a problem posed by Hiero of Syracuse, on how to assess the purity of an irregular golden votive crown. Yet so often people working with innovation focus so much on the “idea phase” and the “innovation phase”.

The “problem phase” is the neglected child of innovation. Or perhaps the Ugly Duckling of Innovation.

In my discussion Henning reminded me: “All innovation begins with a (conscious or subconscious) problem.”

Realising this, perhaps our R&D departments should be called: P&F – as in “Problems and Frustrations” – to make sure they focus on finding solutions to problems.

The company Bayer itself was founded over 150 years ago around a problem. The problem back then was that coloured cotton was becoming popular but it had to be imported, so Friedrich Bayer started a company that could offer domestically produced red and blue dye. The rest is history.

So what is a problem? According to the dictionary the word “problem” comes from the Latin “Pro” (meaning “Forward”) and “ballein” (meaning “to throw”) and the original meaning of a problem in English is from the 14th century with the meaning “a difficult question proposed for solution.”

If we look at problems like that – as “a difficult question proposed for solution” – they become intriguing challenges to solve. (And we still look at the word “problem” like that for example when we talk about “a math problem”.)

The world of business is full of examples of companies started because someone proposed a solution to a difficult question, like how Uber was founded around the problem of the two founders being stuck in Paris in rain and wondering why not every car could be a taxi to solve the problem of them not getting a taxi to get home.

The problem is that most people are not very good at having, seeing or defining problems. So what are some ways of becoming better at it? I asked Henning Trill who replied:

“First we need to become better at defining problems. Keep asking “why?”, “Why?”, “Why?” until you get to the root of the actual problem. And immerse yourself with the people who have the problem to study the reality and not your brainchild…”

He then explained to me that during the “Catalyst program” at Bayer – a program to boost innovation – they spend a lot of time on making sure that the participants are solving the right problem.

When I asked him to give me an example Henning told me from their Companion Animals Group’s group. Companion Animals is another phrase for “pets”.

The sales reps in a European country were complaining that they found it hard to get meetings with the veterinarians.

They defined the problem as: “The vets do not want to talk to us”. So they asked “Why?”, because we do only have incrementally new things to show them.” So again they asked: “Why is this a problem?” And suddenly the sales reps realised that the vets had the same problem from THEIR customers! Pet owners did not want to meet with the vet unless the animal was actually very sick. But vets really care about animals and wanted to have a chance to meet with the pets and their owners even before and actually prevent them from getting sick.

Since they now better understood the problem the team developed a platform (in the form of an app) where the vets can discuss a prevention approach for commutable diseases with the pet owners – preventing the pets from betting bitten by ticks and fleas in the first place. All parties can then track the prevention plan and the pet owners get everything they need delivered by mail. And by having this platform the customer success team can now communicate more often and easier with the vets as well.

The better you understand the problem the easier the idea generation process becomes. And if you are really good at defining the problem the solution will come so easy it almost does not feel like a challenge to solve it. So our advise will have to be: “Do not look for “idea generators”, do not even look for “problem solvers”: look for “problem definers” i. e. people who are able to identify, define and describe problems in a way, that makes the need to solve it and the size of the problem transparent in an amazing way.

Do that and innovation will flourish.




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