Solution-Seeker or Problem-Solver: Professional Identities Push Us Forward Or Hold Us Back

We work for years to become good at what we do. We build up professional identities -- pilot, teacher, astronaut, mechanic, engineer -- and hopefully enter a field because of wanting to become that particular kind of professional. In the future of work, aspects of our professional identities are likely to be challenged given the speed at which work evolves and the length of our careers. Our particular professional identity, and our ability to shift that identity, can affect our (and our organization’s) success. 

Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences at NYU, provides us with vivid insights into the role of professional identity as new ways of working come along. Let me put on the table that I'm jealous of the setting for her research. For the work I’m citing here, she studied open innovation within NASA’s Space Life Science Directorate from 2009 and 2012. This is the portion of NASA focused on “the opportunities, capabilities, and limitations of humans living and working on” the space frontier. Now you’re jealous too.

Prof. Lifshitz-Assaf’s deep-dive into the research setting at NASA highlights key points:

Open Innovation Has Value, If It’s Used

The internet offers us access to much of the world when we seek solutions to problems or triggers for new innovations. From the Innocentive platform to grand challenges and company specific programs like P&G’s, the internet lets us ask the world for help. (Noting that this style of crowd-sourced innovation goes back at least as far as the Longitude Prize in 1714; we just have easier ways of connecting now.)

Ample research (foundational, review, some I’m involved with) points us to the value of open innovation where the funnel of innovation not only brings in ideas from outside the organization, but can do so at any stage in the process. 

Professional Identity Affects Our Willingness to Participate in Organizational Change

If years of individual training and work have led to your dream job and then success in that job, it may be difficult to see the value of asking others for contributions to your goals. 

Open innovation?! [Sigh] . . . a lot of the people come to work here certainly not because they couldn’t make money elsewhere. Perhaps [they could make] even more money elsewhere and have a successful career. It’s because they want the opportunity to be innovative. They want the opportunity to contribute to something that nobody’s ever done before. And so this [open innovation] becomes quite a slap in the face!
— Alex, a leading scientist quoted in Lifshitz-Assaf’s research

The tension between individual and open innovation is even starker if your organization has focused on individuals rewards. (A classic example.)

Prof. Lifshitz-Assaf’s critical insight is that shifts in professional identity could shift the experience of threat and reward and so better support innovation. We can move from being problem-solvers to solution-seekers.

NASA in 2009 -- Open Innovation Experiment

By 2009 open innovation and crowd-sourcing had gained enough broad interest that McKinsey offered a full report on innovation prizes. NASA’s Space Life Science Directorate began an open innovation experiment in 2009, following on past experiences with more constrained versions of external collaboration.

It is a shift from thinking ‘The lab is my world’ to ‘The world is my lab.’
— Ada, an R&D professional quoted in Lifshitz-Assaf’s research

At the heart of Lifshitz-Assaf’s study is how different groups responded to the open innovation opportunity, and her evaluation of the foundations of these differences. She found four different approaches and summarizes them in her Table 4, reproduced here. Forty-three percent of the groups were seen as opening to outside innovation. Thirty-three percent remained closed, with 22% actually feigning openess -- which to me seems more trouble than it’s worth. 

Solution-Seeker or Problem-Solver?

Where professional identities shifted from that of problem-solver to solution seeker, innovation opened.

A pivotal moment in the refocusing process took place in an internal SLSD work meeting, when the refocused identity was named and explicitly explained for the first time. In a discussion about the next strategic R&D challenge, a highly regarded lead scientist became frustrated with the tensions and conflicting approaches around open innovation. She intervened in the discussion and told her colleagues, ‘‘Your main responsibility is to seek for solutions. They may come from the lab, from open innovation, or from collaboration. You should not care! You are the solution seeker!’’ From that meeting on, many of her colleagues took on the identity of solution seeker. Naming the refocused identity was helpful in mobilizing the change and sparking conversations between colleagues.
— Lifshitz-Assaf

Do We See the 4Ts?  

This NASA case crosses the 4Ts that are my focus as I look at the future of work. Technology has given us the ability to access the world’s talent as we search for answers. Yet talented individuals may hesitate to ask for help if their professional identities and organization’s reward techniques are focused on individual success. Explicit thinking in 4T might have more quickly raised the issues that eventually clarified the challenges and highlighted the paths toward using open innovation. Pushing open innovation as independent organizational change is not as powerful as a shift in how innovation is trained for, framed, and rewarded.

Lifshitz-Assof notes that training and incentives for R&D professionals, in general, not just at NASA, continue to focus on individuals and problem solving rather than solution seeking. She asks that future research investigate new organizational innovation models with different interventions. I agree that we need to better understand the interactions across target, talent, technology, and technique and look forward to your examples. My message to NASA: know that I’m scanning your funding/project opportunities and seeking solutions for how Thinking in 4T can support missions in the air and in space.

A final recommendation: Herminia Ibarra’s book on identity shifts -- excellent for career changers.