5 Ways to Innovate Using Better Questions

Innovation is something that so many companies clamor for. And why shouldn’t they? In the fast-moving world of business you need an edge to help you stay ahead…and coming up with a new product or service that no one else has, or doing it in a fresh way, can help you stay ahead. But most people come at the question of innovation straight on. ..asking the question “How can we innovate X?” It’s a hard question to answer, like being gathered into a room and told to “Think outside the box!”

tweet-graphic-4If you want to Innovate, ask a question with more than one good answer


Here’s an example. A company we’re doing a series of workshops with asked us to help them work through what happens when they reject someone who’s applied for their service. Think Health Care, Banking…it’s not very nice when you get turned down for something important like a loan or health insurance. They had the data on this (people were indeed unhappy when they were rejected) and wanted to fix it.

So… “How can we do this in a new way?” The answer that they were working with was “Let’s revise the wordings of the turn down letters!” which is a very straight way to come at the problem – you fix it!

We asked them “What else do people apply and sometimes get rejected for, and what can we learn from that?” This is the reframing of the question from one that comes straight at the challenge into one that opens the challenge up, broadens it, makes it something we can come at more easily. The teams brainstormed other places in our lives that we apply for things: apartments, jobs, college, marriage…and then went out and asked people about their experiences with applying for these things. Then we asked how we could develop principles around transforming the application process from a single event into a relationship.

Read on for five ways you can reframe questions to spur innovation!

At The Design Gym, we love to do an activity where we invite someone up to the front of the room to tell a story about the airline industry. (Why? Because *everyone* has a good story about air travel!) We then ask people to identify the pain points and pleasure points in the story and the group uses those for inspiration for innovation. Once, someone told a story about getting an extra mini-bottle of booze from the flight attendant. They were stoked because it was an unexpected delight. The facilitator of the group asked “what else can the airline industry do to produce unexpected delight?” That question spurred some very creative answers!

1. Create Design Principles

In this case, we took a single positive experience and asked how we could make it into a guiding principle of the entire system. What would it look like if everyone in the customer journey at an airline was looking to create unexpected delight? You’re probably thinking of several ways right now!

Sometimes we get teams to generate design principles through making an Always/Never list… asking what the system should “Always do” and “Never do”. Those principles can help teams think big first, then drill down into how to make them live in the system every day.

2. Map the user journey

Another story involved a man’s recollection of traveling as a kid, getting separated from his family and getting seated next to a stranger. He fell asleep, leaning against the stranger, and woke up to find he had drooled all over the stranger’s sleeve. The horror!

The other people in the group decided that there were a few main ways to solve this challenge…and it was all about time. If we worked back, we could prevent the problem at various times, in various ways. Looking at the journey of the kid, we could ask:

  • “Why did he get separated from his family?” – Which is pretty early down the road to fixing the problem. He wouldn’t feel as bad sleeping and drooling on his own mother, right?
  • “Why can’t we seat him with other droolers?” – Which fixes the problem one step further down the journey. He’s been separated, but we can contain the mistake. This might be hard to implement (and may even be illegal) but we don’t want to eliminate any options this early on in the process.
  • “Why can’t we give everyone a drool-catching mask?” – Which fixes the problem *way* down the line…we’ve missed a few other chances, but we can still save the day!

Problems are not singular…they are a continuums. If we map out the user journey, we can find many places to innovate.

Tweet: Problems are not singular…they are a continuums. If we map out the user journey, we can find many places to innovate.

3. Drool is cool

After all these ideas came up, were written on post-its and mapped out, someone wrote down “Drool is Cool” and placed it at the center of the board. This blew all of our minds. The whole time, we had been trying to *fix* the problem…how can we contain or avoid the drool in the right ways, places and times? But this person was asking how can we make it *awesome* that drooling happened? It’s maybe impossible, for sure it’s hard…but man, oh, man…that really changes the way we look at the problem. That’s what we did with the company’s rejection question…how can rejection be a positive thing, not a negative experience?

4. Great artists steal

Innovation is hard if you are trying to solve a problem no one else has ever tried to solve. Luckily, that’s rarely the case. Many problems have been solved in some way, shape or form…maybe not in your own industry, but someone, somewhere, has thought about the same or similar issues that you’re struggling with. That’s why people like Maria Popova from Brain Pickings talks about Combinatorial Creativity and Tina Seelig from Stanford talks about innovation as quiltmaking rather than puzzle solving. So look at your neighbors, down the road and across the street and see how they might be solving similar issues.

On the train down to that workshop on rejection, we got into a conversation with our neighbor, who was a research scientist in molecular biology. We asked him how scientists handle rejection. He told us about the peer review process, and how you submit papers to be published, and how you get constructive feedback from a number of people. In science, rejection comes with a “No, And…” that helps you move forward and get better. Asking how our client could learn from the peer review process opened a lot of avenues for innovation.

5. What would Google do…and why?

Stealing from your neighbors is a great way to bring unexpected solutions to bear on your own challenges. It’s subtly different from asking “what would google do with our current challenge?” and is a great way to reframe your challenges quickly.

Here’s how it works: We ask groups to write down 4-8 companies they admire on a piece of paper divided in quarters (or eighths) and then, once they’ve written them all down, we ask them to write why. Lots of people will write down “Apple”…but the Why is always different. One participant said “they deliver on a promise of quality.” Another participant mentioned J.Crew, because they were always timely and relevant in their marketing communications (this was a workshop on marketing challenges).

Choosing a few of these Who-and-Why combinations as focus points for a brainstorm can provide some fresh energy and perspective on how to innovate and evolve your company’s approach to its challenges.
Don’t come straight at the question…reframe it, in order to find fresh solutions. If you ask question with more than one good answer…and you’ll be surprised by what you can find.

tweet-graphic-4If you want to Innovate, ask a question with more than one good answer



The Design Gym
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