Select Page

Innovation – Asking the right questions

We are currently looking at the innovation process.  In the previous article I went into more detail for each of the process steps, explaining what each step entails and how it links to the other steps.  The innovation process starts with defining the challenge, where the organisation defines the issue where ideas are required.  Although this sounds trivial, because you will instinctively know where the problem usually lies, this is a very important step.  The way you phrase a problem will lead you down the path of a particular thought process. This, in turn will lead to a particular solution. How you ask the question will impact the manner in which you innovate.
Framing innovation challenges
I want to illustrate the point above with a humorous story.  A young priest asked his bishop, “May I smoke while praying?” The answer was an emphatic “No!” Later, when he saw an older priest puffing on a cigarette while praying, the younger priest scolded him, “You shouldn’t be smoking while praying! I asked the bishop, and he said I couldn’t do it!” “That’s odd,” the old priest replied. “I asked the bishop if I could pray while I’m smoking, and he told me that it was okay to pray at any time!”
As this joke shows, the way you frame a problem profoundly influences the solutions you get. The same problem, when seen from a different angle can lead to a directly opposite interpretation! Skilfully framing problems is paramount for better problem solving and decision making.

To apply this concept in a more practical manner, I want to refer to an excellent article by Arthur B. Van Gundy, Ph.D. where he takes the example of an organisation that wants to invent a new floor-care product.  So the objective is to generate ideas for new floor-care products. Van Gundy advises that it is first necessary to “de-construct” the challenge into its parts, simply by asking basic questions: “What is involved in cleaning floors?”; “What do people dislike about it?”; “How often should floors be cleaned?”; “In what ways are current floor-care products ineffective?”
The answers to these and similar questions can then be used as triggers for specific challenge statements. For instance, answers to the above questions might lead to challenges such as: How might we: “make it easier to dispense floor cleaning products?”; “reduce the amount of effort involved in scrubbing a floor?”; “make floor cleaning more convenient?”; “reduce the frequency with which floors need to be cleaned?”; “Increase the sanitizing effect of floor cleaning?”.  Framing the challenge in these ways will lead to more and better product ideas than just simply asking: “Give ideas for a new floor-care product”.
Another example is the case where a Toyota executive asked employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity”, all he got back were blank stares. When he rephrased his request as “ways to make their jobs easier”, he could barely keep up with the amount of suggestions.
Thus, asking provocative questions has a number of compelling benefits, including: They help us to arrive at a better, more complete definition of the problem or challenge we face; They lead our thinking in fresh new directions, and often help us to take creative leaps that are stepping stones to great ideas and they lead you to analyse your assumptions, which may hamper your ability to generate great ideas.
Next time in a brainstorm exercise, before you jump in and ask a question by stating the obvious, try to formulate your question in such a manner that it attracts creative ideas.  This is not a skill only reserved for “creative” people, there are many methodologies and tools you can apply to help you ask better questions.
Next Time
Next time I will look at the idea generation step of the innovation process.  I want to conclude this week with a tale about Albert Einstein.  Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.  This again illustrates the important point of before jumping right into solving a problem; step back and invest time and effort to improve your understanding of it.

About The Author