One of the most powerful innovation tools available to every member of a group – be it a team, a company division or an organization – is a tool that those individuals are often reluctant to use. The tool I am talking about, of course, is: questioning.
Why are people reluctant to ask questions? There are two reasons – both are stupid. The first is that people are afraid to seem unknowledgeable about a topic related to their work. Before asking her question to the group, an employee will ask herself: “should I know the answer to my question already? Will I appear incompetent by asking my question? Might the other team members look down on me for not knowing the answer?” As a result, the employee is all too likely to keep the question to herself rather than risk embarrassment by asking it to the group.
However, as any teacher knows, the brightest students are not the ones who don’t need to ask questions. Rather, the brightest students are the ones who are constantly asking questions.
If you establish a culture of asking questions in your organization, you are on the first step of establishing a culture of innovation.
The second reason members of a group may be reluctant to ask questions is that doing so may seem to question the competence of the manager: “Why are we doing this mechanically, when we could do it electronically for half the cost?” Of course there are those who ask questions precisely to demonstrate doubt of the manager’s capability – but such questions are more about politics than innovation. We are concerned here with questions that help people understand processes and consider alternative solutions.
The result of these fears is that people in organizations are afraid to ask questions and so avoid asking questions. That’s too bad. Questions are critical to innovation. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, sums it up nicely:
“We run the company by questions, not by answers. So in the strategy process we’ve so far formulated 30 questions that we have to answer. I’ll give you an example: we have a lot of cash. What should we do with the cash? Another example of a question that we are debating right now is: we have this amazing product called AdSense for content, where we’re monetizing the Web. If you’re a publisher we run our ads against your content. It’s phenomenal. How do we make that product produce better content, not just lots of content? An interesting question. How we do make sure that in the area of video, that high-quality video is also monetized? What are the next big breakthroughs in search? And the competitive questions: What do we do about the various products Microsoft is allegedly offering? You ask it as a question, rather than a pithy answer, and that stimulates conversation. Out of the conversation comes innovation. Innovation is not something that I just wake up one day and say ‘I want to innovate.’ I think you get a better innovative culture if you ask it as a question.” (Time.com).
This is important: if you establish a culture of asking questions in your organization, you are on the first step of establishing a culture of innovation. For it is by looking for answers to your questions – not answering, mind you, but looking for answers – that you discover innovative solutions.
For example, if your firm manufactures and sells metal widgets, you and your colleagues should constantly be asking questions such as:
- Why do we only manufacture widgets from metal?
- What else might we manufacture widgets from?
- What would be the consequences of making widgets from ceramics?
- We have 10 years’ experience manufacturing and selling widgets, how else might we monetize our knowledge?
- Why do we only sell our widgets in shops? Why not via the Internet or mobile phones?
- Our factory is working at 65% capacity. How else might we use the remaining capacity?
- What widget related services could we offer our customers?
And so on.
Asking such questions makes you and your colleagues look more carefully at your products, services, operations and processes. It makes you think about new ways of doing things and it makes you explore all kinds of possibilities. And that is how innovation starts.
Creating a culture of questioning
How can you create a culture of questioning? It’s not that difficult. As a CEO, manager or team leader, you need to ask lots of questions yourself. After all, you set the example your subordinates follow. However, because of your higher position, it is important that you frame questions in a manner that makes it clear you are not questioning competence.
Starting with a compliment is a good start. Rather than saying: “Why the hell are you distributing all of our widgets by truck? Do you know how much each truck journey costs!?!”, you might say: “You are doing a fine job with the logistics, but why are all deliveries by truck – sometimes half empty trucks? What would happen if we used other forms of transport, such as couriers, airplanes or even bicycles?” By starting with a compliment and framing your question as a means of seeking knowledge rather than a question of capability, you invite a thoughtful answer. After all, there may be a very good reason why only trucks are used for deliveries – although that does not rule out the option of using other forms of transport.
Pushing subordinates to ask questions is also an effective means of generally encouraging questions. When putting a proposal before your team, insist that everyone ask you five questions about the proposal. The first questions will not be so challenging, but as your team members have to dig deeper for questions, those questions will become more thoughtful, more probing and may well push you to develop your proposal in a more innovative way.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the author
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.