As someone with an interest in innovation, you know the importance of asking questions and listening to answers. However, when it comes to innovation, some kinds of questions are better than others. Jeffrey Baumgartner looks at various types of questions and why they are good – or why they stink.

As someone with an interest in innovation, you know the importance of asking questions and listening to answers. Indeed, you probably make it a habit to do this as often as possible. However, when it comes to innovation, some kinds of questions are better than others. Let us look at various types of questions and why they are good – or why they stink.

Open questions are best

Open questions are those whose answers are not a simple yes or no. Rather they require the listener give a detailed response. Asking if a customer is happy with a product will elicit a yes or a no. Indeed, unless the customer is distinctly unhappy, she is likely to give a non-committal yes.

Asking the same customer “in what ways might we make this product even better?” on the other hand is likely to elicit a lot of useful information. And the more customers you ask this to, the more useful information you will get.

Focus on positive or constructive answers

Imagine you are a hotelier and want to get ideas from your clients about what they like and dislike about your hotel in order to improve your service.

You could ask, “What did you not like about your stay at our hotel?” in order to find points of dissatisfaction. A guest might reply: “The beds were terrible. I couldn’t sleep.” This identifies a problem, but not a path to solving it.

Alternatively, you could ask “How could we make your stay in our hotel even better?” The same guest might reply: “Provide firmer mattresses. I found it very hard to sleep in your soft mattresses.” As you can see, this not only indicates a problem, but clarifies it making it easier to solve. Moreover, it encourages the guest to think positively towards the hotel!

Asking questions that solicit positive or constructive answers always encourages people to do more than identify problems. It encourages them to offer solutions. And even if those solutions are not viable or even appropriate, knowing possible solutions enables you to ask additional questions that will help find the best innovative solution. Using the bed example, you (as the hotelier) would probably realize that although the bed was too soft for this particular guest, another guest might find them just right and another will think they are too hard. This might inspire you to offer different bed types to different guests, depending on their preferences.

Seek knowledge rather than demonstrate it

In professional conferences, I have often found that people ask questions that are designed to demonstrate their knowledge, rather than expand it. Unfortunately, such questions actually tend to make the questioner seem snobbish and provide no real information.

An intelligent question asked at a conference in order to elicit information, on the other hand, actually tends to impress other members of the audience even more as they will also be keen to hear the answer. Moreover, the questioner goes away with more knowledge than she came with.

The rule here is to never be afraid to admit you do not know or do not understand something. Most people are complimented when asked questions – as this demonstrates their knowledge – rather than unimpressed by any questioner’s lack of knowledge

Questions should not intimidate

The same people who ask questions to demonstrate knowledge also often like to ask intimidating questions. Such questions might give the asker a mistaken sense of power. But if they succeed in intimidating, the resulting answer is likely to be a defensive one rather than an information rich one. And if they do not succeed in intimidating, the questioner is likely only to offend the other party – and that won’t provide much useful information either.

Compare the intimidating: “Why the hell have you not achieved your sales targets, you incompetent fool?” with the more positive: “I see your sales are low this month, what do you think is causing the problem and what can we do to solve it?”

Which question do you think is more likely to result in a useful answer? Which is more likely to result in increased sales?

Provocative questions can be effective

While intimidating questions can intimidate respondents into providing useless answers, provocative questions can stimulate people to think more deeply about an issue. In business, provocative questions might include:

  • “What might our competitors do tonight that would keep us awake at night?”
  • “What new technology would make our product obsolete in a day?”
  • “What new legislation could potentially ruin our business?”
  • “How might we run our business without any staff?”
  • “How might we generate an income while giving away our products free?”

Another provocative approach I like is to take a contrary view to a popular opinion. This requires people to question their assumptions and defend their beliefs. Such provocative questions must be asked with care as they can easily become negative and intimidating questions, which stink – as we’ve noted above. If a group of people believe that Studebakers are the best motorcars in the world, you can be negatively provocative by saying “how can you say that? They stink!”

Or you can be more productively provocative by asking “I’m not so sure. What makes you say that?” In the latter example, you indicate you have an open mind and genuinely want to hear answers. In the former, you indicate a very negative feeling and seem unlikely to be very interested in thoughtful answers.

If your colleague criticizes an idea, saying, “our customers would never buy that!”, you should ask, “why not?” or “How might we make them?”

Indeed, a great provocative question is simply to ask “why” (or “why not”) whenever people make assumptions. Enough whys can provide some very thoughtful answers.

Innovation challenge

A very special kind of question is an innovation challenge. This is a carefully crafted question designed to solicit creative ideas from a group of people. Innovation challenges typically start with “In what ways might we…?” or “How could we…?” or “What new…might…?”

For example, “In what ways might we reduce our electricity consumption?” or “How could we make our products more appealing to young women?” or “What new business opportunities might we exploit in Afghanistan?”

Conclusion: Ask questions that increase your knowledge

Irrespective of what kind of questions you are asking and in what context, the golden rule is always to ask questions that will increase your knowledge. In addition, respecting the person or group you are questioning and seeking constructive information is almost always the best strategy.

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.

Photo: thinking women with question mark from