The lost art of asking questions

How innovation has come to favour speed over sanity.

How innovation has come to favour speed over sanity.

Innovation and the need to innovate has shifted from buzzword to business as usual.

An ever growing group of people, myself included, are running around like headless chickens chasing ‘the new’ and ‘the shiny’; creating innovation departments, hiring chief innovation officers, offering innovation grants and hoping that it’ll be enough to keep us relevant, to keep us in business, to stem decline or (if we’re really lucky) to catapult us ahead.

And we’re doing it all at speed; with agile processes, lean operations, week-long sprints and pilot projects. We learn fast, fail fast and the cycle continues.

But during this race to progress, alongside the urgency for more, for better, when do we pause to ask ourselves ‘what are we doing and why?’

It’s been my experience, as both a participant and a leader across various ‘innovation’ projects that we tend to favour action and momentum. We believe that doing something, anything, is better than standing still.

But the more processes I’ve been through; the rushing, the forced forward motion and the desperate need for speed, the more I’ve come to believe that pausing, taking a moment to sit with it and to think it through, to really enquire and delve deeper is exactly the part that’s missing.

We’re so laser-focused on churning stuff out that we’re failing to ask if what we’re producing is worthwhile, of real value, addressing real business needs.

In short, we’ve lost the art of asking questions.

Unlike doctors, lawyers or journalists, we don’t see honing our questioning skills as critical to our professional success. Instead we identify a problem, sell a solution and get to work fixing whatever it is that needs to be fixed.

Including innovation.

Let’s be honest, how many innovation processes have you seen that include asking the right questions upfront (and I don’t mean fixating on a problem), or building in time for enquiry and reflection part way through to ensure we’re still asking and answering the right challenge? I haven’t seen many, if any at all.

And so we find ourselves in a situation where the vast number of businesses are stuck in problem-solving mode with an emphasis on finding short-term solutions, spending valuable time and energy chasing after ideas and concepts that in all honesty are entirely irrelevant because nobody stopped to ask ‘why are we doing this?’

It’s a red flag.

We’re doing it wrong.

We’re falling in love with speed at the cost of sanity and we need a time out.

We need to remove the blinkers that working at break-neck pace can enforce upon us and get back to what real innovation is all about — cultivating a culture of enquiry, exploring with more open minds, slowing down and really thinking, really questioning.

Fortunately, I’m not alone up on this soapbox, there are some far more qualified and eloquent voices that support my own and they’ve not only identified the importance of slowing down and asking better questions but also created actionable ways to do so.

Here are just a few…

The Beginners Mindset

After years of writing about innovation, design, and creativity for publications like Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, Warren Berger became deeply curious about the importance of questions. He now studies them and in 2014 he published a book A More Beautiful Question, about some of his findings.

One of the main strategies he extols is The Beginners Mindset, which involves seeing things from the perspective of someone who may not know what you’re talking about; kind of like a child’s tendency to ask ‘but why..?’ over and over again.

  • Why are things the way they are currently?

  • Why do we do it that way?

  • Why do we believe what we believe?

He shares one of his favourite stories about the origination of the polaroid camera as an example of why thinking as a beginner can be so powerful.

Edwin Land was a brilliant inventor, he was incredibly creative and capable of seeing new possibilities that others could not begin to imagine. But there was one he hadn’t thought of yet and it arrived through a simple question from his 4 year old daughter.

Land was on vacation with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1943. He had taken some photographs of his daughter, using his favourite camera. Of course, in those days, film had to be taken to a darkroom or a processing lab for development; Land knew this to be a given at the time, as did any adult. But his daughter saw things differently and by asking a simple question — ‘Why do we have to wait to see the pictures?’ — the status quo was challenged and the cogs starting to turn in Lands mind.

Although we may think we have a brilliant idea for a new service, or a new answer to an old question, or a better way of doing an old thing, unless we understand why things are the way they are, we can’t possibly see the full spectrum of possibilities. So before we going running off in a particular direction saying “I already know” the answer, it might be worthwhile to step back and look for the truth of why do we do what we do, the way we do it.

The Question Burst

Hal Gregersen is the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and senior lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He’s been consulting with innovators and organisations for decades and has a new book coming out this November entitled ‘Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life’

“For 30 years I’ve tried to figure out how great leaders do their work exceptionally well and I found they were all exceptional at asking better questions — questions that are catalytic, that transform something from what is to what in a very amazing way it might be.”

He believes that the most common venue for asking questions is the business meeting, so he’s devised a method called ‘The Question Burst’, a variation on the traditional brainstorm that both boosts questioning skills and produces fresh perspectives; because rather than jumping in to propose new ideas and solutions, participants take a step back to ask questions about a challenge or opportunity.

Here’s how it works:

  • First, you define a central challenge or opportunity faced by the organisation, and then ask everyone in the group to write down how they feel about it. Then, instead of trying to quickly generate new ideas about the challenge, you take turns asking questions about it during a defined period, usually four minutes.

  • There are two rules to the question burst: No one is allowed to give answers or explain why they’re asking the question. “This way you’re not restraining the way other people see the problem or opportunity,” explains Gregersen.

  • At the end of the session, ask everyone to do another quick emotional check to see if they feel any different, and then jointly examine the questions and decide which ones deserve more research.

  • Finally, the group should examine whether the process has helped reframe the challenge or generate new ideas.

After recording the results of question bursts with thousands of leaders over the years, Gregersen has found that at least 80% of time the challenge is slightly reframed in a better way, and at least one valuable new idea is generated. Worth a try? I think so.

The Five Whys

Credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, the ‘five whys’ involves asking the question why five times in a row as a way of getting deep into a problem.

And although it was originally designed to explore the root causes of a manufacturing issue, we can also use it to help us remove assumptions, better understand what we’re trying to achieve and ensures that we focus on asking the right question, rather than just speeding ahead with the first one.

Here’s an example of how IDEO used Five Whys to explore the motivation behind exercise:

Why do you exercise? Because it’s healthy.

Why is it healthy? Because it raises my heart rate.

Why is that important? So that I burn more calories.

Why do you want to do that? To lose weight.

Why are you trying to lose weight? I feel social pressure to look fit.

While Toyota’s number was limited to five why’s, the truth is sometimes it takes only one why. Other times, it may take 15 or 30. Ask as many times as needed until you get to deep clarity about what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s worth taking the time.

Negative Framing

This is the most uncomfortable and also the most powerful form of questioning when it comes to setting the direction for innovation. It makes people especially squeamish because it involves admitting that things within a business are far from rosy, dredging up a whole heap of issues and being brutally, painfully honest.

Which is why I love it.

Below are some questions I’ve used in the past that initially elicit gasps of horror, but which invariably lead everyone to a more interesting space:

  • Why do our products and services suck?

  • What could our competitors do to render us entirely irrelevant?

  • What suffers more breakdowns: our products, our processes, or our people? Why?

  • What are the unshakable industry beliefs about what customers want? What if the opposite was true?

Asking these questions immediately sets the tone that we’re open to true, deep exploration and prevents us jumping to early (and ineffective) conclusions. Plus it has the added bonus of being an extremely cathartic practice.

Those are just three ways we can reintroduce the art of questioning into our innovation programs and initiatives and it’s critical that we do so.

If we don’t regularly make time to pause, reflect, and really enquire about what we’re doing and why, we risk failing fast for nothing, running in the wrong direction and stemming the flow of innovation, rather than opening the floodgates.

So let’s reframe the old adage of “Don’t bring me questions, bring me answers!” to “Bring me questions, we’ll find the answers together.”

Because for true innovators, it’s ok to sacrifice speed for the sake of clarity and to ensure that the cycle of questioning and deep understanding never ends.