The Four-Step Innovation Process

Generating Innovative Solutions to Complex Problems

The Four-Step Innovation Process - Generating Innovative Solutions to Complex Problems

© iStockphoto

Four steps to innovation.

Imagine that you need to solve a complex problem. You ask everyone on your team to come up with solutions, and they provide a number of ideas. The problem is that the solutions don't have the impact you'd hoped for – they're wild ideas or quick, obvious fixes, and they won't add much value to what you do.

To solve problems effectively, it's essential that you and your team think in a creative and innovative way. You also need to ensure that your solutions address defined business needs, otherwise your ideas won't add much value.

Weiss and Legrand's Four-Step Innovation Process helps you come up with innovative and creative solutions to complex problems, which are securely grounded in a thorough understanding of the business context.

In this article, we'll look at the benefits of using this process, and we'll discuss how you can apply it to find innovative solutions to the problems you face.

About the Model

David Weiss and Claude Legrand developed the Four-Step Innovation Process, and published it in their 2011 book, "Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation in Your Organization."

The four steps are:

  1. Framework development.
  2. Define issue.
  3. Generate ideas.
  4. Implement best solution.

The model's main, unique advantage is that it encourages you to define your business needs early in the innovation process. This means that you generate solutions that add real value to what you do, so that you can deliver better and more sustainable results.


Even though it involves a number of steps, the Four-Step Innovation Process is a relatively simple model. Despite its simplicity, however, it's by no means a "quick fix." It's best to work through the process slowly, and to give yourself plenty of time to think about each step.

Applying the Model

Let's look at each step in greater detail, and discuss how you can apply the model.

Step 1: Framework Development

This initial step encourages you to think about how you'll solve the problem. It also helps you ensure that the solution you develop robustly meets business needs.

Work through the following sub-steps:

  1. Identify the problem's history – What is the history of this problem? Has anyone tried to solve it before? What worked, and what didn't?
  2. Understand context – What's the higher strategy, or project, that the problem fits into? What other projects, problems, rules, or regulations could affect how you solve this problem? How much support will the organization and key stakeholders give to this project?
  3. Ask "How"– Phrase the problem as a question, starting with "How to..." or "How will we…?" For instance, "How will we cut customer complaints by five percent?" or "How will we speed up the process by one hour?" This helps to set the objective and define how you'll measure success.


    Use very specific, quantified words, and avoid vague words like "faster," "improve," "better," "higher," "expensive," or "more," unless you can quantify them.

    If you're working with a team, get each person to write a "How will...?" question – one that he or she feels best describes the problem that you're all trying to solve. Then, discuss everyone's ideas, and decide which one is most suitable.

  4. Define boundaries – What is your budget and timeline, and what resources do you have? What must the solution do, or not do? And what boundaries are outside your control?
  5. Define outcome – Loosely define the type of solution, or outcome, that you think will solve the problem. Will you need to improve a process or product? Or do you need to rethink the way that you do marketing or sales, for example? This step helps focus your thinking in the later steps.
  6. Identify the decision maker – Who really "owns" this issue, and who can make the final decision? If you're solving the problem as part of a project, this may be the project sponsor.

Take time to work through these six areas. Although you might feel ready to start coming up with solutions, wait. The work you put in now will help you in later steps.

If you're working on a complex project, it may be useful to put this information into a more formal Project Charter.

Step 2: Define Issue

The goal of this second step is to find the root cause of the problem, and to identify any sub-problems or issues that you haven't yet uncovered. This will help you ensure that you're looking at the right issue.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 46 problem-solving skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Join the Mind Tools Club Today!

First, clarify your assumptions about the problem using a tool such as the Ladder of Inference.

Then, explore the problem using tools such as the 5 Whys technique, Cause and Effect Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and Interrelationship Diagrams, so that you can identify the main issue that you need to deal with.

It can also help to identify how the problem fits into a larger system or process. Flow Charts and Swim Lane Diagrams can help you do this.

Once you feel that you've understood the problem clearly, make sure that you validate this understanding with the problem owner, or decision maker.

Step 3: Generate Ideas

Now that you've identified a framework for solving your problem, and you have a good understanding of what your problem is, you can focus on the fun, creative part of problem solving: idea generation!

There are four substeps in the idea generation process. Following these substeps ensures that you and your team generate ideas that fit within the boundaries and limits that you've already identified.

  1. Prepare– Arrive at the brainstorming session with the right problem in mind, with an agenda, with a facilitator, and with plenty of creative brainstorming techniques to use.
  2. Define a framework– Let everyone know what the final "How will...?" question is, and go over the boundaries, rules, and goals that you identified in previous steps. This helps you ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  3. Start generating ideas– Put your creative brainstorming techniques to use, and start generating ideas. Try not to judge the quality of ideas; just concentrate on speed and quantity during this stage!
  4. Identify best solutions – Look at all of the solutions that you and your team have generated. You may be able to combine some to create other meaningful solutions. Pick the solution (or combination of solutions) that best answers your "How will…?" question, but don't disregard the other solutions yet.


One of the most damaging things that can happen in stage c is that ideas are censored or judged. Make it clear to your team members that you should not disregard any ideas until you get to step d. There is a time and place for weeding out the weaker ideas, and this should not take place until the end of this step!

Come to the idea generation process prepared with brainstorming techniques that work well with a group. Conventional Brainstorming can work very well, but, if it gets bogged down, be prepared to use tools like Round Robin Brainstorming and Crawford's Slip Writing Method.

If any of you get stuck in the brainstorming process, use lateral thinking techniques such as Provocation or Random Input to come up with fresh ideas.

Step 4: Implement Best Solution

Now, you need to choose the best solution from Step 3, and develop a plan to implement it successfully. This includes thinking through the solution in detail, assessing risks, and creating detailed plans.


Read our article on organizing team decision-making for more on how you can make great decisions as a group.

If you have several possible solutions to consider, use decision-making tools like Decision Tree Analysis and Decision Matrix Analysis to evaluate your options. Use the criteria you identified in Step 1 to choose between them.

For small projects, an Action Plan will be useful for implementing your solution. However, if you're implementing a large-scale project, you'll need to use a more formal project management approach.

Where your implementation affects several people, or groups of people, it's also worth thinking about how you'll manage change effectively. Remember, if you create a positive vision and communicate a compelling reason for the change, it'll be easier to build excitement and get buy-in from your team or organization.


The Four-Step Innovation Process is one of several useful problem-solving processes, and its strength lies in the way that it anchors innovation in the right organizational context.

Other approaches include Hurson's Productive Thinking Model, which is great for encouraging creativity and critical thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process; the Simplex Process, which embeds innovation in a process of continual improvement; and Soft Systems Methodology, which adopts a fluid and iterative approach to problem definition and problem solving.

The best problem-solving approach for your situation may involve a combination of all of these approaches.

Key Points

David Weiss and Claude Legrand published their Four-Step Innovation Process in their 2011 book, "Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation in Your Organization."

The four steps are:

  1. Framework development.
  2. Define issue.
  3. Generate ideas.
  4. Implement best solution.

The benefit of using the Four-Step Innovation Process is that it provides a framework that you, along with your team, can use to work through the innovation process in a thorough and methodical way.

This leads to better, more innovative ideas because you've prepared the ground thoroughly, defined issues clearly, generated ideas in the right context, and planned implementation and change carefully.