Report 103

Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2009
Issue 147

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.

Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.



As someone with an interest in innovation, you know the importance of asking questions and listening to answers. Indeed, you probably make it a habit to do this as often as possible.

However, when it comes to innovation, some kinds of questions are better than others. Let us look at various types of questions and why they are good – or why they stink.

Open Questions Are Best

Open questions are those whose answers are not a simple yes or no. Rather they require the listener give a detailed response. Asking if a customer is happy with a product will elicit a yes or a no. Indeed, unless the customer is distinctly unhappy, she is likely to give a non-committal yes.

Asking the same customer “in what ways might we make this product even better?” on the other hand is likely to elicit a lot of useful information. And the more customers you ask this to, the more useful information you will get.

Focus on Positive or Constructive Answers

Imagine you are a hotelier and want to get ideas from your clients about what they like and dislike about your hotel in order to improve your service.

You could ask, “What did you not like about your stay at our hotel?” in order to find points of dissatisfaction. A guest might reply: “the beds were terrible. I couldn't sleep”. This identifies a problem, but not a path to solving it.

Alternatively, you could ask “How could we make your stay in our hotel even better?” The same guest might reply: “provide firmer mattresses. I found it very hard to sleep in your soft mattresses.” As you can see, this not only indicates a problem, but clarifies it making it easier to solve. Moreover, it encourages the guest to think positively towards the hotel!

Asking questions that solicit positive or constructive answers always encourages people to do more than identify problems. It encourages them to offer solutions. And even if those solutions are not viable or even appropriate, knowing possible solutions enables you to ask additional questions that will help find the best innovative solution. Using the bed example, you (as the hotelier) would probably realise that although the bed was too soft for this particular guest, another guest might find them just right and another will think they are too hard. This might inspire you to offer different bed types to different guests, depending on their preferences.

Seek Knowledge Rather than Demonstrate It

In professional conferences, I have often found that people ask questions that are designed to demonstrate their knowledge, rather than expand it. Unfortunately, such questions actually tend to make the questioner seem snobbish and provide no real information.

An intelligent question asked at a conference in order to elicit information, on the other hand, actually tends to impress other members of the audience even more as they will also be keen to hear the answer. Moreover, the questioner goes away with more knowledge than she came with.

The rule here is never be afraid to admit you do not know or do not understand something. Most people are complimented when asked questions – as this demonstrates their knowledge – rather than unimpressed by any questioner's lack of knowledge

Questions Should Not Intimidate

The same people who ask questions to demonstrate knowledge also often like to ask intimidating questions. Such questions might give the asker a mistaken sense of power. But if they succeed in intimidating, the resulting answer is likely to be a defensive one rather than an information rich one. And if they do not succeed in intimidating, the questioner is likely only to offend the other party – and that won't provide much useful information either.

Compare the intimidating: “Why the hell have you not achieved your sales targets, you incompetent fool?” with the more positive: “I see your sales are low this month, what do you think is causing the problem and what can we do to solve it?”

Which question do you think is more likely to result in a useful answer? Which is more likely to result in increased sales?

Provocative Questions Can Be Effective

While intimidating questions can intimidate respondents into providing useless answers, provocative questions can stimulate people to think more deeply about an issue. In business, provocative questions might include:

“What might our competitors do tonight that would keep us awake at night?”

“What new technology would make our product obsolete in a day?”

“What new legislation could potentially ruin our business?”

“How might we run our business without any staff?”

“How might we generate an income while giving away our products free?”

Another provocative approach I like is to take a contrary view to a popular opinion. This requires people to question their assumptions and defend their beliefs. Such provocative questions must be asked with care as they can easily become negative and intimidating questions, which stink – as we've noted above. If a group of people believe that Studebakers are the best motorcars in the world, you can be negatively provocative by saying “how can you say that? They stink!”

Or you can be more productively provocative by asking “I'm not so sure. What makes you say that?” In the latter example, you indicate you have an open mind and genuinely want to hear answers. In the former, you indicate a very negative feeling and seem unlikely to be very interested in thoughtful answers.

If your colleague criticises an idea, saying, “our customers would never buy that!”, you should ask, “why not?” or “How might we make them?”

Indeed, a great provocative question is simply to ask “why” (or “why not”) whenever people make assumptions. Enough whys can provide some very thoughtful answers.

Innovation Challenge

A very special kind of question is an innovation challenge. This is a carefully crafted question designed to solicit creative ideas from a group of people. Innovation challenges typically start with “In what ways might we..?” or “How could we...?” or “What new..might..?”

For example, “In what ways might we reduce our electricity consumption?” or “How could we make our products more appealing to young women?” or “What new business opportunities might we exploit in Afghanistan?”

For more information about innovation challenges, download Dr. Arthur VanGundy's article on the topic here: (PDF document, 338 KB)

Conclusion: Ask Questions that Increase Your Knowledge

Irrespective of what kind of questions you are asking and in what context, the golden rule is always to ask questions that will increase your knowledge. In addition, respecting the person or group you are questioning and seeking constructive information is almost always the best strategy.



The “Aha” moment, the moment when a great idea formulates itself in your mind or a problem comes to a neat solution, is familiar to us all – and all the more so if you are a creative thinker.

However, there has been little scientific research into that aha moment, not least because it is difficult to make a subject experience it in laboratory conditions.

However, Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths' College (London) and Bhavin Sheth of the University of Houston (Texas) have come up with an intriguing approach. Their results will are published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The Approach

Drs Bhattacharya and Seth's approach was to find some practical problems with not entirely intuitive solutions which they believe would mimic insight, at least as far as the mind is concerned.

For instance, you enter a three story house. On the ground floor is a set of three light switches. Two of them do not work. One of them turns on an old fashioned light bulb on the second floor. That light and all three switches are off when you enter the house. You may flip the light switches as much as you want, but you may only go up to the second floor once to check the light bulb. How might you determine which switch controls the light bulb on the second floor?

Participants, 18 young adults, were asked to solve the problems while connected to an electro-encephalograph (EEG) which monitored their brainwaves. If the subject could not solve the problems within 60-90 seconds, she would be given a hint. In the above example, the hint would be to turn one switch on and leave it for a while.

The Results

Not everyone solved every puzzle, of course. And this was as the researchers hoped. What was interesting was that the EEG showed different results depending on whether or not the subject could solve the problem. More interesting still was that the EEG could predict when a subject was about to solve the problem – or have an aha moment.

Up to eight seconds prior to getting the answers, subjects' EEG readings would show increased activity in the right frontal cortex. This is the bit of the brain associated with shifting mental states. In other words, your subconscious mind has an aha moment up to eight seconds before your conscious mind does!

Dr. Sheth believes that the brain may be capturing the “transformational thought” in action, before the person in question is aware of it.

An Thought-Provoking Conclusion

This research as well as recent related studies suggests that perhaps concious thought does not solve problems. Rather unconscious processing happens in the background and only delivers the answer to consciousness when it is ready. In other words, it is very possible your conscious outsources problem solving to the subconscious!

Solution to Sample Problem

Incidentally, if you did not get the light switch riddle, the trick would be to switch one light switch (a) on for several minutes. Then switch it off and switch another one (b) on. Then immediately go upstairs. If the light is on, switch (b) turned it on. If the light is not on, feel the bulb. If it is hot, then switch (a) turned it on. If it is cold, switch (c) would turn it on.

Reference: “Incognito”,The Economist, April 18th 2009



The latest rage in innovation circles is crowdsourcing. This is the idea of capturing ideas from the public, such as by launching web based suggestion boxes into which people can input ideas. The theory seems good on the surface: involve your customers in your innovation process. They know your products, they have ideas and the web facilitates their sharing those ideas with you.

However, many of the crowdsourcing approaches I have seen recently seem be based on the hypothesis that if a term (like crowdsourcing) is really trendy, you don't need to worry about logic.

Free Suggestion Boxes

And indeed, most crowdsourcing tools are little more than web based suggestion boxes which ignore the basic rules of creative problem solving and innovation. Indeed, such tools have little to do with the innovation process and a great deal to do with the idea capturing process. That's great if you only want to capture ideas, but not so great if you want to innovate.

It works like this: a company uses (usually) free software to set up a web suggestion box. Customers are then encouraged to submit ideas and comment on each others' ideas. However, suggestion boxes do not focus ideas on business needs. Indeed, they do not focus ideas at all! Moreover, these free suggestion boxes provide no means of evaluation aside from some which offer a voting mechanism. If your CEO makes decisions based on votes by the public, this will doubtless seem a great way to choose ideas. But for most companies it is terrible. Worse voting tends to promote incrementally innovative ideas and penalise highly innovative ones! To learn why voting is a bad way to evaluate ideas, please read “Innovation Is not Democratic” in the 20 May 2008 issue of Report 103 ( ).

The result of such systems is that the corporate user gets a lot of unfocused ideas and no process by which to evaluate them. Indeed, more than one manager involved in such a system has revealed to me that if they knew how much work would be involved, they'd never have got started with the system.

Crowdsourcing as PR

In fact, the main value of crowdsourcing, at least in most marketers' minds, seems to be publicity. Having a public idea forum gives the impression a company is innovative. Yet there is a danger here. On two of the better known Crowdsourcing suggestion webs, people are complaining that their ideas are not being implemented and wonder whether or not anyone is listening.

But Crowdsourcing Can Work

Mind you, Crowdsourcing can work. Innocentive ( is highly successful and so well done that it has spawned a large number of copy-cats. The way Innocentive differs from typical crowdsourcing applications is that it is not an open suggestion box. Rather companies can pose challenges and offer rewards to people who can provide innovative solutions. These rewards can be quite substantial -- tens of thousands of dollars sometimes.

There are two key differences between Innocentive's approach and the suggestion box approach. Firstly, corporate users of Innocentive are not just asking for any ideas (which tend to encourage complaints and incremental improvements on existing products). Rather they are publishing very focused challenges, typically based on scientific research. Ideas submitted respond to the challenges and often need to be somewhat developed.

Secondly, because companies using Innocentive are posing specific challenges or questions, they also have a structured approach to evaluating ideas: usually checking suggestions against a set of criteria.

Of course companies have to pay to use Innocentive and they have to offer rewards to motivate creative individuals and teams to submit ideas. But thanks to this focus, Innocentive is doubtless less expensive actually to use as an innovation tool than are the so-called “free” or “open source” crowdsourcing applications.

In addition, a structured innovation process management application or one of the better idea management tools, although not free, will be less expensive to use and far more effective in terms of results simply because these applications provide a structured approach to innovating according to business needs.

For more information about innovation process management (IPM), our approach to corporate innovation, please read the white paper “Innovation Process Management” at And if you want to know more about a good IPM application, read the advert below!



With more and more idea management, suggestion scheme, crowd-sourcing and other idea capture products coming onto the market these days, choosing the right innovation solution can be a challenge. Fortunately, if you are looking for a comprehensive innovation process management product that not only facilitates the capture of ideas, but lets you focus innovation on business needs; provides web 2.0 collaboration options, enables scientific-like evaluation of ideas and facilitates the development of ideas using your existing business tools, there is only one option: Jenni.

Jenni is a highly flexible innovation process management web application that can provide the backbone of your innovation process, irrespective of whether you have 100 employees or 100,000. And because it is a web application, we can normally have your implementation of Jenni up and running within a day of your go-ahead. Sooner if need be!

In addition, if you are keen on crowdsourcing, we now have a crowdsourcing option available with Jenni. Contact us to learn more!

For more information about Jenni, to arrange a demo or to talk to an expert near you, visit

We look forward to helping you manage your innovation process efficiently and effectively.



If you are providing innovation services such as consulting, training or coaching and want to add a great idea management software solution to your portfolio of products and services, contact me (via the web or +32 2 305 65 91 or Skype Eurojeffrey) and let's talk about how Jenni can help your clients innovate better – and help you gain new clients.

You benefit from our generous commission programme, marketing on the popular web site (over 150,000 page hits/month) and collaborating with a fantastic global team of innovation, marketing and sales experts ( In addition, by packaging your services with Jenni, you can provide your clients with value added innovation services that help them increase profitability.

It's a fantastic win-win-win scenario for us all!



If you want to keep up with the latest news in business innovation, I recommend Chuck Frey's INNOVATIONweek ( 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!

Happy thinking!

Jeffrey Baumgartner


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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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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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