Disruptive innovations pose simple questions about the status quo. So how do you ask the right question? And can the same technique be applied to every day problems?
What if we all worked from home? What if we didn't own anything anymore? What if we did not had to charge our laptop? What if we would never ran out of printing paper? What if junk food was healthy? What if we could crowdfund an entire city? Steve Jobs once asked: What if we had 1000 songs in our pocket.
When we deconstruct stories of innovations you find many of them start with a question. These questions are often considered a bit provocative or even a little crazy. Their goal is not to solve a problem but rather to find a problem.
If Einstein had one hour to solve a problem, he would devote 55 minutes to figure out the right question to answer. Peter Drucker - management guru - warned us that there's nothing more dangerous than the right answer to the wrong question. Once the question is clear the answer would follow naturally.
So why is problem finding so hard? Why are we so addicted to solving problems but not finding problems? Why are so many of us reluctant to ask them? Primary because we fear that others will find us incompetent or uninformed. As people gain more experience and expertise in their field they are supposed - as experts - to supply answers, not more questions.
In school we reward answers, not asking good questions. Kids start out by asking endless why questions. They tinker with their surrounding, wondering what would happen if... But gradually they ask fewer questions as they progress through school. Teachers provide the questions, and students are trained to solve them. The questions they do ask become smaller and more prescribed.
It's not just a matter of being willing to question, it's also important to know how to ask questions. How do you come up with the right question? Not just questions that lead to disruptive innovation. But also questions that would improve every day problems.
Most problems today are creative problems. They are inherently unpredictable, inconsistent, and non-repeatable. There is simply no way to precisely define the goal in advance because of too many unknows. But you have to start somewhere. But how do you set a course when the destination is unknown? This is were it becomes important to imagine the goal. We can't really conceive it yet, but it's out there. In knowledge work we need our goals to be fuzzy.
Find your focus
But how fuzzy should a fuzzy goal be? At one end of the spectrum is the clear, specific, quantifiable goal, such as improve team by 20%. At the other end is the goal so vague that - in practice - iit is mpossible to achieve. Like the beauty pageant that wishes for world peace. Both are valid goals. A narrow goal leaves no room for intuition and creativity. A goal that is too wide lacks sufficient definition to focus the creative activity on. So, the short answer is, the right question somewhere in the middle. Only by further exploring the space the right question will emerge.
Map your questions on the Golden Circle by Simon Sinek. Why questions are more likely to start a fire. What questions are too detailed to provide creative insight. Questions in the What area can me moved to How are Why by asking why. Sounds simple right.Try it, it works
Start a fire
Fuzzy goals must be aligned with people's passion and energy for the project. You can have the right question but the wrong audience. The right question will spark the imagination, a call to adventure. Start a fire in the wrong way or in the wrong place, and you may soon find that things are out of control. It's this passion and enery that gives creative projects their momentum. The right question, will get you the right result.
We often ask one question and get locked in by - and even obsessed - by that question. Write down 10 different versions of the same question as fast as you can. Some might not make sense at all but most often we find a different and better version of the same question. This often reflects in either making the focus more narrow or wider.
Either you create the questions up front or ask your team members to create them for you. Afterwards you can prioritize or even judge them based on different criteria: passion, priority, and other constraints. Again, you can't force people to be creative on a topic they don't care about.
Make it tangible
First, find your focus. Second, design for outcome. What kind of result do we expect? Is it to generate new ideas, to reach agreement, make though decisions, unravel complexity, make a project plan, share information, build community, or even have a working prototype. What are we going to do with the results? Is this just a brain exercise or will the idea be pitched to the ceo tomorrow? Creativity works best when the goal and expectations about the results are clear. Make the result tangible it will give a sense of accomplishment when you are done.
Learn to let go
Start somewhere, but once you embark on this adventure be sure to let go. Since you know very little about the challenge that lies ahead it's very likely that your goal will change as you try out ideas and learn more about what works and what doesn't.
Asking the right question does not come easy. Practise every day using every objects. What if bananas would come in cubes? What if my dog could take herself out for a walk? What if I would live underground? What if anyone would actually read this blog ;)
Daniel Pink wrote in his book To Sell Is Human: They key to problem solving is problem finding. If I know what my problem is, I can most likely solve it. If I don't know my problem I might need help finding it.
How do you start a fire?