Dumb Questions (And What To Do About Them)

I’m obsessed with questions. In 2014 I was cited in Warren Berger’s terrific book, “A More Beautiful Question,” and that only made it worse. (See my blog post about that and my interview with Warren here.)

Innovation is rooted in questions, and some questions are frankly better than others. Some questions, from an innovation standpoint, are dumb. Or, to use the Buddhist term, unskillful at least.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re an ATM maker. You might ask:

“How can we make and sell the next generation ATM?”

Who could fault you for that question? And yet, it’s an unskillful question. It tells the development team zilch about what you care about, except that you’re worried about being left behind by your competitors. It doesn’t identify a customer you’re committed to, a problem you know deeply about, or a vision you have for your future.

A better question is:

“How might we leverage our strength in self-service to help small financial institutions increase customer access and improve their brand experience, without reducing their profits?”

What makes this question more beautiful? Let me count the ways:

  1. It identifies a specific customer you care about … small financial institutions
  2. It states a worthy goal … increase customer access
  3. It includes an emotional element … brand experience
  4. It identifies a right-to-win asset … strength in self-service
  5. It acknowledges a key design constraint … maintaining profitability
  6. It leaves plenty of room for how

For all these reasons, the new-and-improved version inspires your innovation team. The original question had none of these qualities.

Some firms refer to these types of questions as hunt statements or challenge statements.The best innovation teams make a science of questions; they hold the question up as a North Star to guide their innovation project.

Questions don’t replace the need for good problem-solving, but they provide one crucial component: problem-framing. If you frame well, you’re halfway there.

Did I raise any questions? If so, drop me a note at togilvie@peerinsight.com.