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Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question

Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question

Solving the right problem by Rikus Grobler of Namibia Innovation Solutions

The theme I am busy with is creative thinking, one of the key components of innovation. It all starts with an idea, right?

I have already touched on the quality of thinking and finding time to think. I now move to a broad outline of asking the right questions, as I believe that innovation is driven by questions that are original, bold, counterintuitive, and perceptive.

Asking the right questions

To underscore my point, I want to tell a humorous story. I have told it before, but for me it stays one of the best examples of how your perspective on a matter determines the answers or outcomes you get, and I want to tell it again.

A young priest asked his bishop, “May I smoke while praying?” The answer was an emphatic “No!”

Later, when he sees 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!”

A more practical example of the impact of framing a problem comes from Steve Jobs, who was a master at defining a clear product vision. When setting out to build the iPod, he framed the problem as “1000 songs in my pocket.” That simple phrase defined not only the technical specifications, but the overall approach.

My second pint comes from Warren Berger who said: “…If you look at a lot of the innovations and breakthroughs today and you trace them back, as I did in my research, to their origin, a lot of times what you find at the root of it all is a great question; a beautiful question of someone asking why isn’t someone doing this or what if someone tried to do that? So I found that questions are often at the root of innovation”.

So, the big question for this article then becomes how do you figure out these great questions to ask (I don’t know if this qualifies as a pun, but it sure feels like one…).

I started unpacking this matter and the first question that came to mind is why don’t people ask these fundamental kind of questions?

The answer was actually quite “logical”, but research did confirm it as a recent study found that people in business are generally loathe to raise questions – primarily because they fear that anyone who asks fundamental questions will be perceived as incompetent or uninformed.

And if anything, this problem seems to worsen over time as people gain more experience and expertise in their fields. After all, experts know they’re supposed to supply answers, not more questions. So step one is to let go of your ego and don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if the question appear to be “stupid”.

Secondly, it’s not just a matter of being willing to question, it’s also important to know how to question. Coming up with the right question, the one that casts a familiar challenge in a new light, is as much an art as it is a science.

Hence, what is also crucial in terms of asking a “different” question, is for the questioner to be able to look at an existing reality from multiple viewpoints, including, perhaps most importantly, that of the “naïve outsider”. Thus, to ask better questions, don’t try to be the expert, rather put yourself in the shoes of the novice or even better, involve the novice!

Asking better or “different” questions has a number of compelling benefits, including: They help you arrive at a better, more complete definition of the problem or challenge you face; they lead your thinking in fresh new directions, and often help you 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

I want to complete this theme of creative thinking with some general pointers on how to improve personal creativity, the topic for next time.

I conclude with a point to ponder from Peter Drucker: “The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions. Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.”

Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre. 2015. Big Innovations Question the Status Quo. How Do You Ask the Right Questions? Online:



About The Author

Rikus Grobler

Dr Rikus Grobler is a Namibian academic, inventor, entrepreneur, public speaker, and business consultant who specializes in the development of the innovation capability of companies and individuals. He holds degrees in Engineering and Law and has an MBA and a Ph.D. in Business Administration. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and he has also completed studies in design thinking and intellectual property management. An experienced professional with a background in manufacturing, information technology, tertiary education, research, consulting, and financial services, Dr. Grobler has been involved in innovation management for the past ten years and currently holds the position of Manager: Innovation for the Capricorn Group in Namibia. He is particularly interested in creativity, innovation, and invention.