Framing better questions can help us find better answers.
Innovation and the need to innovate has shifted from buzzword to business as usual.
An ever growing number of companies are chasing 'the new and the shiny'; hiring chief innovation officers and offering innovation grants - hoping it’ll be enough to keep them relevant, to stem decline or (if they’re really lucky) to catapult them ahead. And they’re doing it all at speed; with agile processes, lean operations and pilot projects.
But during this race to progress, when do we pause to ask ourselves ‘what are we doing and why?’
We’re so laser-focused on churning out 'stuff' that we’re failing to ask if what we’re producing is worthwhile, of real value, addressing real business needs.
In short, we’ve lost the art of asking questions.
Instead we identify a problem, sell a solution and get to work fixing whatever it is that needs to be fixed. Including innovation.
Let’s be honest, how many innovation processes have you seen that include asking the right questions upfront? Or building in time for enquiry part way through to ensure we’re still answering the right challenge? I haven’t seen many, if any at all.
And so the vast number of businesses find themselves stuck in problem-solving mode with an emphasis on finding short-term solutions, spending valuable time, money and energy - chasing after ideas and concepts that are in all honesty entirely irrelevant.
We need to remove the blinkers that working at break-neck pace can enforce upon us and get back to what real innovation is all about — cultivating a culture of enquiry, exploring with more open minds, slowing down and really thinking, really questioning before designing solutions.
Here are some of the techniques I use in my work with clients.
1. The Beginners Mindset
The Beginners Mindset involves seeing things from the perspective of someone who may not know what you’re talking about; kind of like a child’s tendency to ask ‘but why...?’ over and over again.
- Why are things the way they are currently?
- Why do we do it that way?
- Why do we believe what we believe?
It's one of the main strategies extolled by Warren Berger in his book, A More Beautiful Question which explored the importance of questioning in innovation.
Although we may think we have a brilliant idea for a new service, or a new answer to an old question, or a better way of doing an old thing, unless we understand why things are the way they are, we can’t possibly see the full spectrum of possibilities.
2. The Five Whys
The ‘five whys’ involves asking the question why five times in a row as a way of getting deep into a problem.
And although it was originally credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, to explore the root causes of a manufacturing issue, we can also use it to help us remove assumptions, better understand what we’re trying to achieve and ensure that we focus on asking the right question, rather than just speeding ahead with the first one.
While Toyota’s number was limited to five whys, the truth is sometimes it takes only one why. Other times, it may take 15 or 30. Ask as many times as needed until you get deep clarity about what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s worth taking the time.
3. Negative Framing
This is the most uncomfortable and also the most powerful form of questioning when it comes to setting the direction for innovation. It involves admitting that things within a business are far from rosy, dredging up a heap of issues and being brutally, painfully honest.
Which is why I love it!
Below are some questions I’ve used in the past that initially elicit gasps of horror, but which invariably lead everyone to a more interesting space:
- Why do our products and services suck?
- What suffers more breakdowns? Our products, people or processes?
- What could our competitors do to render us entirely irrelevant?
- What are the unshakeable beliefs in our industry? What if we did the reverse?
Asking these questions immediately sets the tone that we’re open to true, deep exploration. Not to mention being an extremely cathartic process.
Unfortunately, our education system and our work cultures teach us to answer questions not to challenge or reframe them.
Yet if we don’t regularly make time to pause, reflect, and really enquire about what we’re doing and why, we risk failing fast for nothing or running in the wrong direction.
So let's reframe the adage of "Don't bring me questions, bring me answers" to "Bring me questions. We’ll find the answers together".
If you'd like to explore a fresh approach to a problem you are grappling with, get in touch.