To Generate Innovation Ideas, Questions Are The Answer

Where do innovation ideas come from?

Conventional wisdom says organizations must look outside to innovate. Innovative ideas exist out there, not in here. Not where everyone is too vested in the status quo. Too risk averse and change resistant.

But wisdom isn’t conventional and innovative ideas aren’t rare gems to be found. Innovation is a mindset, not a hunt. Ideas come from people, born of experience. Your people have experience with your organization and its customers. They can innovative.

Innovation means doing something different to get a better result. The challenge is to how to unthink the obvious to see it differently. How do you tap the experience in your organization to innovate?

To generate innovation ideas, questions are the answer.

Start Here

Peter Drucker posed questions every organization should ask itself from time to time: What is our mission? Who is our customer? What do they value? What are we delivering to them, and what should we deliver?

Those are the basics, the place you should start and return to. Track the answers. Innovation is in them.

Go There

Sometimes questions don’t generate new thinking. People espouse received knowledge and give pat answers. If the basic questions cause yawns, try these[i]:

  • Ask why, five times (more or less). Manufacturers do it to get at root problems. It’s used in Six Sigma and other analytic techniques. Pose a problem (e.g., “Why are customers dissatisfied with our program?”) and ask why in response to each answer until you find fundamental causes you can act on to change. Ask why about the most routine things your organization does to help people unthink what they believe they know about problem or challenge.
  • Ask what if…?. Why questions produce understanding. What if questions spark expansive, imaginative thinking. What if we stopped doing that? What if we did it this way? What if we asked the customer? What if we tried to see what happens? What if we don’t try? Ask what if to help people rethink problems and solutions.
  • Ask how? How is about doing. How questions and what if questions can get at the same things, so try using how questions to focus on how to do the what if ideas you just generated. How would we do that? How would it work? How might it go wrong? Aim to test ideas in conversation before testing them in the organization, in a pilot.

The Power of Questions

Berger notes that to encourage questioning is to cede power —something that might give pause to managers. But power that comes from information is too democratic to contain. “Known answers are everywhere, and easily accessible,” says Harvard education expert Tony Wagner. “The value of explicit information is dropping,” according to Harvard innovation professor Paul Bottino. The real value is in “ what you can do with that knowledge, in pursuit of a query.” And that brings us back to teams.

And innovation is about teams, not individuals. Individuals pooling what they know into group knowledge, in support of the mission. So don’t search for innovative ideas. Cultivate a mindset to be curious, to understand, to solve problems. Encourage that mindset for the benefit of your customer, and you will create a culture of innovation.

[i] Credit for these questions and all quotes in this blog go to Warren Berger in “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

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