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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #6) — On asking beautiful questions

Every week, Mark Storm shares some observations and insights on innovation and intrapreneurship. His motto: don’t just ‘do’ innovation, ‘are’ innovation.


On asking beautiful questions

In A More Beautiful Question, the ‘questionologist’ Warren Berger shows, the most creative, successful people tend to be expert questioners. They’ve mastered the art of inquiry, raising questions no one else is asking — and finding the answers everyone else is seeking. The author takes us inside red-hot businesses like Google, Netflix, IDEO, and Airbnb to show how questioning is baked into their organizational DNA. He also shares dozens of inspiring stories of artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, basement tinkerers, and social activists who changed their lives and the world around them — by starting with, what Berger calls, a ‘beautiful question.’

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In an interview with Drucker on the Dial, Berger talks about the art of asking questions. When asked how leaders can encourage questioning within their company, Berger explains that they should start with making clear that questioning is actually valued. One way of doing this is, is by putting questions out there themselves, and showing openness and even vulnerability by not having all the answers.

But too often we hear executives say ‘I don’t want anyone to bring me a question unless they also bring the answer.’ This isn’t a very clever thing to say, far from it, Berger continues, because questions don’t always have immediate answers. You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart, or ‘beautiful’ question as he calls it, to also have the perfect answer. Finding this answer may be something you have to work on as a team or even a company, which may take years.

You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart question to also have the perfect answer.

As a recipe for coming up with better questions, Berger points out we will have to train ourselves to become better observers because questions often come from observation — from listening and paying close attention. We should step back from habitual thinking or even from our daily routines, and look at what we’re doing with a fresh and discerning eye. Often we are just too familiar with the things we do. We take things for granted without questioning why we do it in the first place. Is what we do still relevant? What was the original reason for having this particular process? Does it still hold up today or are we doing something that no longer makes sense? It is extremely hard for people to ask these kind of questions unless you make an extra effort.

“The tough thing is figuring out what questions to ask. The rest is really easy.” — Elon Musk

People shouldn’t be afraid to ask fundamental questions — questions that sometimes may seem a bit naive. They should also dig deep into their questions and ‘live with them’, as Berger calls it. “Questions are things that we pursue and live with over time. And we get comfortable with the uncertainty [of not knowing] while we are chasing them, in the hope that we will eventually get to an answer.”

And finally, you have to act on your questions. “This is the really important thing that a lot of people don’t do or understand about questioning,” Berger says. “They think it’s like philosophy. That you raise an important question, think about it a while, maybe debate it with someone, and then you move on. But if we’re talking about innovative questioning, you have to act on those questions if you want something to happen.” Innovative questioning often moves from why to what if to how (do we make it happen). “If you are a good effective questioner,” Berger says, “you will have to ask those three questions and follow through.”

Getting employees to ask more questions is the easy part; getting management to respond well to those questions can be harder. When leaders claim they want ‘everyone to ask more questions,” I sometimes (in my bolder moments) ask: “Do you really want that? And what will you do with those questions once people start asking them?”

When asked what Berger’s favorite question is, he brings up the 3 year old daughter of the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Edwin E. Land, who simply asked why she had to wait for the picture? What she was doing, obviously without knowing it, was challenging the assumption (that you had to wait for a picture). Her father than started to think about that question in a different way, and he moved on to ‘what if we did is?’ and ‘how might we do that?’ And eventually he created the instant camera. This example shows that an innocent outsider can sometimes ask a question in a way that reframes reality.”

Kodak started with a simple, yet beautiful question: “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”
Kodak started with a simple, yet beautiful question: “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”

Also John Hagel, the co-chairman for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, talks about the importance of asking the ‘right’ questions. In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review, The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution, he remarks that leadership in the future is actually around “being able to frame the right questions, the highest-impact questions, where the leader is actually saying, ‘I have no clue, but this is a really important question. And if we could figure it out, we would do amazing things.’ That’s a completely different model of leadership.”

Some questions indeed have the potential to catalyse breakthroughs and inspire transformations, while others lead to stagnation and demoralization. According to Marilee Adams, president and founder of the Inquiry Institute and author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, the difference lies in whether you ask learner questions or judger questions. Learner questions facilitate progress by expanding options, while judger questions impede progress by limiting perspectives.

“Learner questions are open-minded, curious, and creative,” she says. “They promote progress and possibilities, and typically lead to discoveries, understanding and solutions.” By contrast, judger questions are more closed-minded, certain and critical. “They focus on problems rather than solutions and often lead to defensive reactions, negativity and inertia.” (How The Most Successful People Ask Questions)

If your wonder what your Inquiry Quotient is — whether you’re a natural ‘Beautiful Questioner’ or not — answer these 10 quick questions and see how you score.

A bit more …

In last week’s Field Notes, I talked about the need for more thinking in design thinking. Olof Schybergson, the CEO of Fjord, which was recently acquired by Accenture, has his own take of what is needed. In Time to Re-Think Design Thinking, he writes: “More corporations are opening their eyes to the power of design thinking as a way to solve the crisis of innovation. They see disruptive companies like AirBnB get this. But misguided efforts — however well-intentioned — may do more harm than good. The truth is, design thinking has become broken in today’s digital age. The current interpretation of design thinking is often shallow and, as widely understood, not the answer. Simply put, design thinking is not enough. True success comes from building a complete design system, and no organization can build such a system on design thinking alone.”

“It’s the same story again and again. First, a team comes up with an idea. Next, they build a minimum viable product (MVP) as a proof of concept, spending a lot of time arguing about which features to include or exclude from the MVP. Finally, if the MVP works well, they plan on building the full, mature, stable product,” Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman writes in A Minimum Viable Product Is Not a Product, It’s a Process.

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“So what’s wrong with this picture? Why does it all go wrong for so many startups? The problem is that these teams do not understand the point of an MVP. An MVP is not just a product with half of the features chopped out, or a way to get the product out the door a little earlier. In fact, the MVP doesn’t have to be a product at all. And it’s not something you build only once, and then consider the job done.”

“What is innovation? How do you know it when you see it? How do you know whether it’s garden variety or, well, bonkers variety?,” Lisa Baird asks in The Innovator’s Blind Spot“Designer Don Norman describes innovation as a process of hill-climbing. Organizations work, dream, think, and struggle their way to the top of local peaks, leaving incremental and evolutionary changes in their wake. Occasionally they cross valleys, leaping onto wholly new hills, whereupon they work, dream, think, struggle their way to the top again, revolutionizing themselves in the process. In Norman’s words, ‘Incremental innovation attempts to reach the highest point on the current hill. Radical innovation seeks the highest hill.’”

“Innovation has become a defining ideology of our time. Be disruptive, move fast, break things! And everyone knows — right? — what innovation looks like. Just Google the word. You’ll see lots of lightbulbs. Lightbulbs represent a sudden flash of inventiveness experienced by Thomas Edison or other mythic geniuses,” says in W Patrick McCray, a professor of history at the University of California, in It’s not all lightbulbs.

If we abandon the cult of the Great White Innovator, we will understand the history of technology in a much deeper way

“Innovation, as an infinite progression of advertisements, political campaigns and university incubators tell us, is Always A Very Good Thing. And, like all myths, this one holds some truth. Technological innovation has raised standards of living, made populations healthier, safer and smarter. But, in large part because this isn’t always true, it’s essential to understand how science and technology advances actually happen and affect the world. Because of their importance, it’s essential to reflect more critically on our collective myths about innovation.”

In Right Tech, Wrong Time (Harvard Business Review’s November 2016 issue), Ron Adner and Rahul Kapoor write that “few modern firms are untouched by the urgency of innovation. But when it comes to strategizing for a revolution, the question of ‘whether’ often drowns out the question of ‘when.’ Unfortunately, getting the first right but not the second can be devastating. ‘Right tech, wrong time’ syndrome is a nightmare for any innovating firm. Closer analysis of the enabling contexts of rival technologies — Is the new ecosystem ready to roll? Does the old ecosystem still hold potential for improvement? — sheds more light on the question of timing. And better timing, in turn, will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the innovation efforts that are so critical for survival and success.”


ABOUT MARK STORM
As a catalyst for change and renewal, Mark Storm challenges leaders to understand today and shape tomorrow. He is a progressive thinker and sense-maker who looks at the world through different prisms — constantly asking himself why is it like that and not like this?

You can follow Mark on Twitter and Medium, and connect on LinkedIn.

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