Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your fortnightly newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.
FOCUS ON QUESTIONS
This issue of Report 103 is all about questions. Questions are critical to imagination, creativity and innovation. If people like Einstein, Edison, Newton, Da Vinci and others had not asked questions, this world would still be a primitive place and our global knowledge base much smaller.
QUESTION, QUESTION, QUESTION!
One of the most powerful innovation tools available to every member of a group – be it a team, a company division or an organisation – is a tool that those individuals are often reluctant to use. The tool I am talking about, of course, is: questioning.
Why are people reluctant to ask questions? There are two reasons – both are stupid. The first is that people are afraid to seem unknowledgeable about a topic related to their work. Before asking her question to the group, an employee will ask herself: “should I know the answer to my question already? Will I appear incompetent by asking my question? Might the other team members look down on me for not knowing the answer?” As a result, the employee is all too likely to keep the question to herself rather than risk embarrassment by asking it to the group.
However, as any teacher knows, the brightest students are not the ones who don't need to ask questions. Rather, the brightest students are the ones who are constantly asking questions.
The second reason members of a group may be reluctant to ask questions is that doing so may seem to question the competence of the manager: “Why are we doing this mechanically, when we could do it electronically for half the cost?” Of course there are those who ask questions precisely to demonstrate doubt of the manager's capability – but such questions are more about politics than innovation. We are concerned here with with questions that help people understand processes and consider alternative solutions.
The result of these fears is that people in organisations are afraid to ask questions and so avoid asking questions. That's too bad. Questions are critical to innovation. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, sums it up nicely:
“We run the company by questions, not by answers. So in the strategy process we've so far formulated 30 questions that we have to answer. I'll give you an example: we have a lot of cash. What should we do with the cash? Another example of a question that we are debating right now is: we have this amazing product called AdSense for content, where we're monetizing the Web. If you're a publisher we run our ads against your content. It's phenomenal. How do we make that product produce better content, not just lots of content? An interesting question. How we do make sure that in the area of video, that high-quality video is also monetized? What are the next big breakthroughs in search? And the competitive questions: What do we do about the various products Microsoft is allegedly offering? You ask it as a question, rather than a pithy answer, and that stimulates conversation. Out of the conversation comes innovation. Innovation is not something that I just wake up one day and say 'I want to innovate.' I think you get a better innovative culture if you ask it as a question.” (Time.com: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1541446,00.html).
This is important: if you establish a culture of asking questions in your organisation, you are on the first step of establishing a culture of innovation. For it is by looking for answers to your questions – not answering, mind you, but looking for answers – that you discover innovative solutions.
For example, if your firm manufactures and sells metal widgets, you and your colleagues should constantly be asking questions such as:
Why do we only manufacture widgets from metal?
What else might we manufacture widgets from?
What would be the consequences of making widgets from ceramics?
We have 10 years' experience manufacturing and selling widgets, how else might we monetise our knowledge.
Why do we only sell our widgets in shops? Why not via the Internet or mobile phones?
Our factory is working at 65% capacity. How else might we use the remaining capacity?
What widget related services could we offer our customers?
And so on.
Asking such questions makes you and your colleagues look more carefully at your products, services, operations and processes. It makes you think about new ways of doing things and it makes you explore all kinds of possibilities. And that is how innovation starts.
How can you create a culture of questioning? It's not that difficult. As a CEO, manager or team leader, you need to ask lots of questions yourself. After all, you set the example your subordinates follow. However, because of your higher position, it is important that you frame questions in a manner that makes it clear you are not questioning competence. Starting with a compliment is a good start. Rather than saying: “Why the hell are you distributing all of our widgets by truck? Do you know how much each truck journey costs!?!”, you might say: “You are doing a fine job with the logistics, but why are all deliveries by truck – sometimes half empty trucks? What would happen if we used other forms of transport, such as couriers, aeroplanes or even bicycles?” By starting with a compliment and framing your question as a means of seeking knowledge rather than a question of capability, you invite a thoughtful answer. After all, there may be a very good reason why only trucks are used for deliveries - although that does not rule out the option of using other forms of transport.
Pushing subordinates to ask questions is also an effective means of generally encouraging questions. When putting a proposal before your team, insist that everyone ask you five questions about the proposal. The first questions will not be so challenging, but as your team members have to dig deeper for questions, those questions will become more thoughtful, more probing and may well push you to develop your proposal in a more innovative way.
What do you think? If you've got any questions about this article, go on and ask me. I'd love to have to answer them!
PROPOSING IDEAS AS QUESTIONS
A question I am often asked in workshops is how to propose ideas to colleagues and superiors. It strikes me as sad that even in innovative companies, employees have to ask such a question. Management should, of course, be begging employees for ideas.
Yet, it is not surprising. For every employee with a new idea, there are several employees who feel threatened by new ideas. The latter are secure in the jobs, know their routines and know they are respected by management for doing their jobs well. Changing processes threatens their stability. And new ideas very often change processes.
As a result, new ideas can be perceived as a threat. The idea: “We should close all of our retail shops and sell exclusively by the Internet!” threatens people's jobs and would clearly change many internal processes. This makes colleagues scared and makes them respond negatively to such an idea.
However, if the same idea is proposed as a question, the reaction would probably be much different: “What would happen if we closed our retail units and focused all of our selling on the web?” doesn't immediately threaten people. Rather it invites them to discuss an idea and ask their own questions, such as: “An interesting idea, but if we did that, what would we do with all of our retail unit employees?”
Proposing an idea to a manager, on the other hand, might be interpreted as criticising the manager's ability to do her job. Saying: “Instead of making all of our clothes in one central factory and distributing them to our shops around the world, we should outsource manufacturing to small factories close to each shop. That way our clothes match local fashions better and we can respond faster to new trends” might suggest that the manager's current process is not effective. The result is not likely to be a positive response from the manager.
You could turn the same suggestion into a question, “What would be the result of outsourcing manufacturing to small local factories near our shops?” Rather than questioning the manager's competence, you are inviting the manager to demonstrate her knowledge and understanding of her speciality as well as speculate about how a potentially innovative idea might pan out. Moreover, if you have a culture of questioning (see above article) in your firm, your manager will pose questions back to you that should push you to develop your idea further. For example, “That's an interesting idea, but it will make our purchasing system much more complex. How might we avoid problems there?”
Posing new ideas as questions is not always the most effective means of selling an idea, particularly a highly thought-out and developed idea. But when you want to propose a new idea, it is a great way to get feedback and involve your colleagues in considering the idea.
Posing ideas as questions not only makes those ideas less threatening, but also invites your colleagues to ask their own questions and thus help you push your idea further. And that is critical to innovation.
IN WHAT WAYS MIGHT WE...?
When designing creative challenges for ideas campaigns, brainstorming or other ideation approaches, the best design is typically in the form of a question starting with “In what ways might we...?” or “How could we...?” or similar phrases.
Such questions not only challenge people to come up with answers – or ideas – but also invite numerous ideas. That's important. With more ideas you can generate more innovation.
Consider these three ways of crafting a creative challenge..
1. “Customer service ideas”.
Such a challenge is more confusing than anything else. People will not be clear what exactly you are looking for.
2. “How can we serve our customers better?”
This is better. The question forces people to think and gives a clear direction on the kind of ideas you want. But, the way it is phrased hints that there is a single correct answer.
3. “In what ways might we serve our customers better?”
Like the second challenge, this one is a question and so challenges people to think. Importantly, by using “In what ways...” you are making it clear that you are not looking for one correct answer, but rather many possible answers. This encourages people to think more and continue proposing ideas even after a good idea has been proposed.
Recently, we have been experimenting with with Jenni idea management software service (http://www.creativejeffrey.com/jenni/) and Sylvia Web BrainStormer (http://www.creativejeffrey.com/sylvia/ - or try it out free at http://www.creativejeffrey.com/brainstormer/). In the web forms where the user inputs her creative challenges for an ideas campaign or brainstorm event, we have tried leaving the input field blank and providing a starter phrase in the input field. In particular, we have found that if the input field for the creative challenge starts with “In what ways might we”, users write significantly higher quality challenges. This results, of course, in significantly better ideas that are more likely to meet the users' needs.
And that is, after all, the aim of corporate innovation.
CHALLENGING CHILDREN WITH QUESTIONS
If you are like me: you have children as well as a strong interest in creativity and innovation, you are probably concerned about raising creative children. Asking children challenging questions is a powerful way of exercising their imaginations and encouraging creative thinking. Questions starting with “What would happen if...?”, “How come...?” or “How might you...?” encourage children to think abstractly and envision how various scenarios might play out. Such questions also provide an avenue with which your children can be imaginative with you in a more grown up way than by playing with toys (which I also encourage highly).
I am reminded of the importance of asking children questions and engaging with children whenever I read another story about some child who suffers a horrific fate and it transpires that child was a MySpace user. (Ten years ago, the villain would have been the Internet itself!)
Now I am the first to admit that I do not see the appeal of MySpace – even though I believe I have a profile there from my attempts to understand its appeal. Moreover, since my eldest is only nine years old, he's not yet interested in MySpace or other teen-oriented web places.
But if he was interested, you can be sure I would be asking all kinds of questions about MySpace – not merely to understand it, but also to help my children understand dangers – and opportunities - associated with MySpace: What might happen if you share your telephone number with someone here? What could happen if you go out to meet someone in person that you met on MySpace? How could you make that meeting safer? What kind of people are you meeting? Where do they come from? And so on. Engaging children in question based discussions relating to their lives not only helps them become more imaginative and thus more creative, but also helps them better understand the world and people around them via their imaginations.
WORKSHOP: THE WAY OF THE INNOVATIVE MANAGER
If you are a manager, you have a double-edged responsibility when it comes to creativity and innovation. Not only must you be more creative yourself, but you must also motivate your subordinates to be more creative in order to build a more innovative company (or team or division).
Over the next few months I shall personally lead a series of two day, interactive workshops designed to help managers find their own creativity, push their teams to be more creative and use that creativity to implement innovative ideas.
The workshops will be highly interactive, including team work, activities, role play, brainstorming and more. The workshops will cover a number of issues that I have written about in Report 103 over the years. Topics will include finding your own creativity, developing a simple innovation plan, crafting creative challenges, motivating people to be more creative, kinds of ideation events and how to run them, pushing ideas, idea review, communications, and much more.
As with all my work on innovation and creativity, these workshops will be jargon-free and entertaining. The idea is not to weigh you down with a complex - and probably unusable - step-by-step innovation rulebook, but rather to give you an understanding of the principles of corporate creativity and innovation and help you develop the system that works best for your organisation.
Provisional dates for the workshops are:
Brussels: 21-22 November 2006 (Tu-We)
Amsterdam: 28-29 November 2006 (Tu-We)
London: 5-6 December 2006 (Tu-We)
New York City: 19-20 January 2007 (We-Th)
Chicago: 25-26 January 2007 (Tu-We)
Pricing: €1250/US$1600 for two days workshop, lunches, three months follow-up coaching/advice via telephone and e-mail.
I will almost certainly run additional workshops in North America, Europe and Asia in 2007. If you'd like me to visit your city, let me know.
We haven't put up the registration form on the web yet, but if you are interested, send me an e-mail and I will get back to you with details ASAP.
We would also like to promote our workshop on innovation blogs and web sites using an affiliate programme. If you have an innovation blog or web site and would like to generate some additional income with it, please contact me.
LATEST IN BUSINESS INNOVATION
If you want to keep up with the latest news in business innovation, I recommend Chuck Frey's INNOVATIONweek (http://www.innovationtools.com/News/subscribe.asp). It's the only e-newsletter that keeps you up-to-date on all of the latest innovation news, research, trends, case histories of leading companies and more. And it's the perfect complement to Report 103!
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Report 103 is edited by Jeffrey Baumgartner and is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month.
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