Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre

Big Innovations Question the Status Quo. How Do You Ask the Right Questions?

Many disruptive innovations pose simple questions about the status quo. So how do you ask the right questions?

What if someone sold socks that didn’t match? In his new book Disrupt, Luke Williams, a veteran of frog design, talks about how that offbeat question was the impetus for the launch of Little Miss Matched, a company whose purposely mismatched socks proved surprisingly popular with young girls. It’s one of a number of examples Williams cites of new business innovations that began with what he calls “a disruptive hypothesis.” Another better-known one is Netflix, whose business model provided an answer to the question, What if a video rental company didn’t charge late fees?

Breakthroughs are often born with someone asking “What if…?”

It’s interesting that when you deconstruct stories of innovation, you find that many of them start with a question--often one that could be considered provocative, naïve, or maybe even a little crazy. In my own research into the design world, I found that breakthroughs ranging from the OXO potato peeler to the Cheetah prosthetic foot could be traced back to someone, somewhere, asking “What if…?”

Likewise, a number of today’s hottest tech startups came into being as an attempt to answer ambitious questions like, What if we could somehow crowdsource everything a city has to offer? (Foursquare) or, What if we could get any question immediately answered by the world’s smartest people? (Quora).

On one level, this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise: It’s fairly well understood that one must question assumptions and challenge conventional wisdom in order to innovate. No less an authority than Einstein has told us, It’s all about the questions, stupid. (Okay, I’m paraphrasing Einstein there, but he actually did once say that if he only had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he’d devote the first 55 minutes to figuring out the right question to answer.)

Why are so many of us reluctant to question?

But this raises an interesting you-know-what: If we can see that questions are linked to innovation and problem-solving, why are so many of us reluctant to ask them? A recent University of Michigan study found that people in business are generally loathe to raise questions—primarily because they fear that anyone who asks fundamental questions will be perceived as incompetent or uninformed. And if anything, this problem seems to worsen over time as people gain more experience and expertise in their fields. After all, experts know they’re supposed to supply answers, not more questions.

To be fair, this is not just a business-world failing. When I discussed the subject of “questioning” a while back with Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of the TED Conference and a man who’s pretty much obsessed with questions, he immediately focused on the educational system. “In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question,” Wurman pointed out. Which may explain why kids--who start off asking endless “why” and “what if” questions--gradually ask fewer and fewer of them as they progress through grade school. And, Wurman observed, the questions they do ask tend to become “smaller and more proscribed.”

Questioners must look at an existing reality from multiple views.

As for the ones who don’t stop asking questions? They’re more apt to become our top innovators and business leaders. A study of some 3,000 creative executives, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and the INSEAD business school, found that what linked all of these Steve Jobs-types, perhaps more than anything else, was their curiosity and willingness to question--“the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children,” according to Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of the study.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of being willing to question--it’s also important to know how to question. Innovation is driven by questions that are original, bold, counterintuitive, and perceptive. Some of the designers I’ve talked to about questioning--people like Wurman, Stefan Sagmeister, Yves Behar, and others--have observed that coming up with the right question, the one that casts a familiar challenge in a new light, is an art and science in itself. It demands that the questioner be able to look at an existing reality from multiple viewpoints, including, perhaps most importantly, that of the “naïve outsider.”

In this era of Google, Ask.com, and now Quora, we’ve come to expect quick answers to whatever questions pop into our heads. But the best innovators know that when it comes to answering profound, game-changing questions, a much more exhaustive kind of “search” is required. The question must be lived with; over time it may be expanded, then honed and refined. It is apt to launch the questioner on a journey of inquiry that may involve in-depth observation, combinatory and lateral thinking, experimentation, and prototyping (after all a prototype, to quote IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez, is itself “a question, embodied”).

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