Questions, questions, questions – How Smart Businesses Innovate

How much of your work centers on coming up with answers? My guess is a lot. Our bosses and managers task us with delivering results. Your professional advancement often depends how much you know and how many right answers you provide, quickly. Many business leaders are finding, however, that the challenge isn’t coming up with the right answer; it’s not asking the right questions.

A hallmark of innovation, and successful entrepreneurship has always been asking questions: Why do things work the way they do? How might we make them better? What if we did it this way instead?

Those three types of questions, Why? How (might we)? What If? can help organizations immensely. They form the foundation of the design thinking process. They are relatively simple questions. Their power comes from not just asking them once, but by continually asking them that allows you to dig deeper into a meaningful opportunity.

The 5 Whys technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used at Toyota Motor Corporation. The technique is surprisingly simple. Start with the problem or challenge at hand (“People hate standing in line” where Disney started in its theme parks, for example), ask Why? and come up with an answer. Then take that answer and reframe the problem with a new why. In the above example, Disney addressed that challenge at Disneyworld and ended up with new management process, The Disney Way. Newspapers could and should use the 5 Whys to address the challenge “Why are fewer people reading newspapers?” Retail could and should use the technique to address the challenge “Why are people buying so much online?” By asking the 5 Whys organizations have the opportunity to dig into a truly meaningful insight they can use to start solving the problem.

Why questions lead to How Might We? questions. Tim Brown of IDEO has described this phrase as a creative problem tool that you can apply to almost any challenge. How Might We? allows people to brainstorm and ideate freely and creatively. It opens up remote possibilities. The world “might” gives us the freedom to imagine things that may not work. “How” puts a more practical spin on the challenge. You can use the “How Might We” sequentially like the 5 Whys in laddering exercises, which pushes the team to keep ideating and reframing the challenge.

What If? questions are both imaginative and practical. They put people on the path to disruptive and innovative solutions. Airbnb asked, “What if we let people rent out parts or all of their homes to people going on vacation?” Uber asked “What if we let people use their own cars to taxi people around cities?” and are now asking, “What if we let those same people deliver goods?” Closer to home, through a public VPIRG project, Vermont solar energy company Sun Common asked “What if we let people lease expensive solar panels rather than forcing them to buy them?” What if questions send organization down an important path of iteration to figure out the networks and processes needed to answer the question and to turn it into a profitable line of business.

There are many places you can ask questions to successfully innovate or grow your business. Talk with customers, staff or vendors and ask them questions, using the 5 Why technique. It’s an effective way of getting to some clear needs and behavioral motivations. You can’t do this through surveys or focus groups. Even asking whys for standard operating procedures can uncover surprising opportunities for improvement.

Warren Berger, author of the book “A More Beautiful Question” suggests that organizations rethink their Mission Statements and frame them as a question. Doing so, says Berger, shows that organizations are continually striving and while acknowledging room for change and adaptability. It also opens up opportunities for participation and collaboration. Mission statements that deliver the message “We’ve got it all figured out” usually leave the opposite impression.

Questioning could be the most powerful tool in your business arsenal. Why aren’t more businesses using these techniques for continuous improvement? How might organizations incorporate and encourage questioning into the busy workdays of their employees? What if all projects and meetings started off by using questions?

These small shifts in culture could have a huge impact on the future of your organization.

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