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Innovation Requires the Right Team Asking the Right Questions

November 7, 2014


“What if?” asks Mike Myatt (@mikemyatt), a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs and Boards. “What if you could reinvent your business? What if you could change the perception of your brand? What if you could break from the status quo? What if you could attract better talent? What if you could reenergize your corporate culture? What if you could make the changes you know you need to make? What if? To the one, great leaders aggressively pursue what if – do you?” [“The Power Of ‘What If’,” Forbes, 8 February 2013] As I stated in a previous article [“Some Thoughts About Disruptive Innovations“], I’m a big fan of “what if” thinking because it is another tool that forces us to change perspective, think differently, and ask good questions. Although Myatt implies that a solitary great leader can sit behind his desk asking “what if” questions and then lead his or her company to greatness, I’m convinced that great teams motivated by a great leader are the driving forces of innovation. Great teams, like great leaders, ask great questions. That’s a lot of “greatness” that needs to be put in place.


Building the Right Team


That begs the question: How do you assemble a great team? If I had to provide a one-word answer to that question, the word would be “diversity.” Some of the world’s greatest innovations have come about because experts from different disciplines have collaborated. Diverse teams are effective because individuals from various disciplines bring with them unique perspectives. A truly great team is one that can look at a challenge from all angles. That simply can’t happen if everyone on the team shares the same kind of background and expertise.


John McGurk (@JMcGurkLTD), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Head of Scotland, agrees that innovation is best served in a collaborative setting. “Most discussion about innovation tends to focus on two extremes,” he writes. “Either innovation is about big science and product development. Or it’s about creativity and culture. Both are of course crucial, but essentially innovation is about how people work together, and how they share knowledge and ideas.” [“How to Encourage Innovation in Business,” Chartered Management Institute, 4 December 2012] Like me, McGurk believes that innovation is driven by “cross-boundary working and focusing on … collaborative and integrative business partnerships.” He insists that great leaders need to break down corporate silos by “making good use of employees’ skills and competencies, and encouraging them to collaborate, share knowledge and network with others. This approach is sometimes referred to as using human, social and organizational capital effectively.” Although a company should support a culture of innovation (i.e., one that encourages cross-functional communication), I don’t believe it should establish permanent innovation teams. Teams should be brought together to address specific challenges. Focusing on a single challenge is a better way to ensure that important issues won’t be overlooked because the discussion wanders to another subject. Applying this to Myatt’s suggestion about exploring what-if questions, teams could be assembled to address those questions; but, each team should only address one question at a time.


Asking the Right Questions


“Brilliant thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights,” writes Paul Sloane (@PaulSloane), founder of Destination Innovation. [“Ask questions: The single most important habit for innovative thinkers,” Innovation Solutions] To underscore his point, Sloane points to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” Sloane adds, “He knows that if you keep asking questions you can keep finding better answers.” It has been my experience that the best analysts are those who ask the best questions. Leigh Buchanan (@LeighEBuchanan) agrees. “The key to innovation,” she writes, “is not gathering more data but rather asking more questions.” [“Want to Be More Innovative? Ask Better Questions,” Inc., March 2014] Buchanan, Inc. editor-at-large, interviewed Warren Berger, author of the book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. When Buchanan asked Berger what makes a question beautiful, he responded:

“A beautiful question reframes an issue and forces you to look at it in a different way. It challenges assumptions and is really ambitious. Often, these questions begin with the phrase ‘How might we…’ They have a magnetic quality that makes people want to answer them, to talk about them, to work on them. They make the imagination race. The Polaroid camera came out of a 3-year-old girl’s asking, ‘Why do we have to wait for the picture?’ That’s a beautiful question.”

“How might we” is simply a different form of the “what if” question recommended by Myatt. Berger told Buchanan that companies usually reward people for coming up with answers but often ignore people who come up with great questions. He told her that executives often hesitate to ask questions believing that employees are looking to them for answers and that confidence in their abilities could be shaken if they ask too many questions. Like Sloane, he believes that great leaders are the ones who are confident enough to ask the hard questions. When Buchanan asked him, “What questions don’t get asked early or often enough in innovation projects?” Berger responded:

“There are two kinds. First, the fundamental ones. Why are we doing this? What do people really care about? Second are the crazy questions. What if we did this backward? What if we were to subvert all the assumptions in the field and do something that sounds ridiculous? Interesting ideas can come out of exploring impossible things. There’s a place for asking those out-there questions early on, when you are in the most open stage of thinking.”

Greg Satell (@Digitaltonto) agrees that innovation begins with asking the right questions. He writes, “Albert Einstein is often quoted (perhaps apocryphally) as saying, ‘If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would spend 19 days to define it.'” [“Before You Innovate, Ask the Right Questions,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 11 February 2013 (registration required)] When faced with a challenge, Satell recommends asking questions like: How do we go about solving it? How well is the problem defined? Who is best-placed to solve it? Those questions, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. They should lead to a myriad of other questions that peel the problem away like the skin of an onion. Sloane writes:

“Columbo solves his mysteries by asking many questions; as do all the great detectives – in real life as well as fiction. All the great inventors and scientists asked questions. Isaac Newton asked, ‘Why does an apple fall from a tree?’ and, ‘Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?’ Charles Darwin asked, ‘Why do the Galapagos islands have so many species not found elsewhere?’ Albert Einstein asked, ‘What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?’ By asking these kinds of fundamental questions they were able to start the process that lead to their tremendous breakthroughs. The great philosophers spend their whole lives asking deep questions about the meaning of life, morality, truth and so on. We do not have to be quite so contemplative but we should nonetheless ask the deep questions about the situations we face. It is the best way to get the information we need to make informed decisions and for sales people it is the single most important skill they need to succeed.”


Putting It All Together


By assembling diverse teams populated by individuals who can ask questions from different perspectives, your company will have a much greater chance of finding innovative solutions to the challenges it faces. Such teams can also help your company address important “what if” questions that could determine whether your company is prepared to meet the challenges it could face in the years ahead, including events that could make it irrelevant. The most innovative companies are those trying to put themselves out of business (i.e., continually transforming themselves) before their competitors can put them out of business. That kind of transformation will never occur if your company is afraid to ask hard “what if” questions.

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