Become an innovator (part 4): Ask the right questions
This blog series is exploring the shared characteristics of innovative people and organisations, with a particular focus on what innovators think, feel, believe and do. We’ll also look at how we can all do more to encourage and create innovative workplace cultures.
The fourth of the characteristics shared by all those with a spirit of innovation is: innovators start by asking great questions.
A curious power
Why are questions so powerful? Because of the innate curiosity of the human mind.
“Questions have a curious power to unlock new insights and positive behaviour change in every part of our lives”, says Hal Gregersen, former Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Centre1. Good questions, he writes, feel surprising and generate new thinking. They invite people down a fresh rabbit hole with the promise of solutions to a problem they care about. Gregerson concludes that: “Not knowing is more exciting than knowing, because it means there is much more to learn”.
Another leading advocate of the power of questions was the engineer and businessman Taiichi Ohno. Credited as the father of Toyota’s production system, he developed the ‘five-whys’ approach. This involves asking “Why?” five times, to really get to the bottom of an issue. Taiichi Ohno also had a precept: “Wisdom is given equally to everybody. The point is whether one can exercise it.”
Here’s what other renowned innovators say about the power of questions:
- “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask.” Albert Einstein
- “Great questions are a much better indicator of future success than great answers.” Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates
- “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” Elon Musk
The three types
So, what constitutes a great question? Let’s look at the three types.
Type one questions trigger a quest
Type one questions often explore issues that require us to totally refresh the mental models we use to define our understanding of the world. Type one questions are also often behind the origin story of great companies. Boots the chemist began when John Boot asked how we might make medicine more affordable for the people who need it most.
These ‘quest questions’ are often personal, and trigger a continuous search. One of my own quest questions is “what great music is out there that I have yet to discover?”. What’s yours?
Type two questions frame a challenge
The aim is to lead to actionable insight. These types of question often begin “how might we…?”. They search for causes and for purpose. For example, instead of asking “why aren’t schools performing?” we were to ask “why aren’t students learning?”.
Here’s another: Martin Seligman, when he became president of the American Psychological Association, reframed the focus of the discipline when he tweaked the core question from “what are the roots of negative mental health?” to “what are the positive attributes of good mental health?”.
Type three questions zoom in even further
They often begin “what if…?” and seek to imagine great solutions. What if we created a taxi service without owning any cars? What if we created a version of TED talks that offered additional insights in return for a membership fee? What if we were to make everything in our shop cost just a penny or a pound?
When imagining new ideas, there are two techniques. Firstly, playing games to let your imagination run wild. Secondly, being disciplined in your analysis. For this latter approach, the ‘15 questions’ tool below might help to challenge existing products or services.
As discussed above, this is part four of a series of planned articles on the characteristics of innovative people and organisations. The next instalment is coming soon, but in the meantime you can explore the full set in detail, by downloading our free report Innovation for Everyone.
And if you want a chat about how to create a more innovative culture in your organisation, just drop me a line at John.Drummond@How-on-earth.co.uk
- Hal Gregersen ‘Questions are the Answer’, HarperCollins, 2018