Asking questions that challenge the status quo is a key skill for successful innovators. How can you become a better questioner?
- How many of you have been in a meeting where at the very end, the leader says any questions? And there are no questions and everybody shuffles off in question and yet you might of had a question about why things are the way they are, how you might change them, or what if you tried something completely different than what's going on, what might happen? There are so many times when we don't ask questions and business innovators, they're good at doing it.
They won't sit back. They're willing to challenge the status quo. And what we find is that innovation is more likely to occur when individuals take the initiative to ask the questions and when leaders take the opportunity to create a safe space for others to ask the questions. So questioning is really at the start of the innovation process because if you don't question the status quo, why would you change anything? Right, it starts with questioning and challenging the status quo.
I had a chance to interview Meg Whitman, who at the time was the CEO of Ebay. She said I've worked with a number of disruptive innovators over time. These folks love to screw up with the status quo. They want to change the world. One of the interesting things we learned is that there are some characteristics of good questions because we actually looked at the questions that people were asking and tried to categorize them.
Interestingly enough, we found that good questions actually often impose constraints on your thinking. Let me give you an example. One executive, she was looking for new growth ideas from her team. Here's the question she asked. What if we were legally prohibited from conducting any future business with our current customers? How would we make money next year? Now that's a big constraint, right.
You now have to sort of think outside of the box to come up with new and different ways to create value for new customers. Another executive asked what if we could no longer have any face to face communication with our customers? How would we deliver great customer service? Right, these are big constraints where you can't do business as usual and they can often provoke sort of a work around. Sort of a necessity being the mother of invention.
Interesting, we also learn the flip side was true. Good questions often really eliminate constraints from your thinking. So Steve Jobs was known to like to ask this question. What if money were no object? Technology were no object, what kind of product would we create? In other words, he's asking what's the perfect product, right. Now I know for me, I've gone from disk man to the iPod when I jog and it's a leap forward but if I were really thinking about what's the perfect product, I'd love to be able to just speak the song I want to hear and hear it in stereo sound anywhere I'm at.
That's the way you eliminate constraints to try and get to what's the perfect product and then you might have to back off because money and technology are real issues but good questions often are those that impose and eliminate constraints on your thinking. So how do you become a better questioner? One of the things that we recommend, a technique that we have developed is what we call question storming and we've all heard about brain storming, right? But brain storming is about really getting together with a group and you brain storm solutions to a problem.
Question storming is about getting together with a group or doing as individually and brain storming questions about a problem. Now you can do this in a team but you could also do it at the individual level. So I had one student in an executive NBA course on creative innovation decided every day before work, he was going to spend 15 to 20 minutes writing down questions and these were all of just questions about problems the company's facing, issues in the industry, competitors and so on and he just did that everyday.
Three months later his boss comes to him and says something's different. You are now a very strategic thinker. You help us to figure out what things we should be working on. You're asking great questions, how are you doing this? This actually lead to a promotion three months after that because of his ability to be a strategic thinker and it really came down to he said the fact that he was a better questioner. So learn to question storm, do it individually but also do it in your teams. That can help you become a better questioner.
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