An innovation answer is a seductive illusion. We all want to come up with quick, easy solutions to our complicated problems, but answers don’t actually provide resolution. That’s because, in the world of innovation, there will always be another question–a new urgency or need waiting to be met. Instead of being distracted by the convenience of an orderly solution, we need to learn to embrace the knottiness of big questions.
This is exactly what I’ve learned in my thirty-year experience judging case competitions at business schools and organizations around the globe: the question isthe answer. At these events, teams are given case studies with a dilemma and asked to brainstorm the best game plan for the fictional company. The best responses are always the ones that spend the most time with the question itself, making sense of its nuances and implications.
Sense-making is the fundamental skill of innovation. Leaders judge cases every day. Interpreting stories is how we make sense of our world. Making sense of a story requires two main things: cognitive mobility and inquiry strategies. Cognitive mobility is the capacity to see something from many different perspectives and to connect the dots between a variety of interrelated elements. Inquiry strategies are the questions we ask to penetrate an issue. The ideal questions will be both analytical and generative, simultaneously sparking critical and creative thinking.
In order to be great questioners, we need to be flexible, willing to look at the same thing through multiple points of view and cultural lenses. Most important, though, are our patience and tolerance. Questioning is often frustrating, confusing–even maddening–because questions lead to more questions. They sometimes bring us to things that make no sense or even dead ends. So be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort and to get your hands dirty. Here are three strategies to consider as you navigate your way through your innovation questions.
Locate the boundaries of your biases. Everything you see is necessarily determined by your unique position: your culture, your education, your discipline. The problem is that most people have trouble seeing past their own experiences and histories. You need to become aware of your own biases. Consider, for example, the common mistake made by companies who think that the same process and improvement techniques that work in their own modern country will work in a developing country. This misconception has destroyed the careers of so many leaders who can’t gain an outside viewpoint on their industry. Develop self-awareness by asking these questions: how would this case be different if it were interpreted by a character from a different point of view? What is my emotional reaction to this case and how does it affect how I make sense of it?
Move the players around the board. Stories are interactions of setting, character, action, and motivations. In order to make sense of these complex dynamics, philologists, folklorists, and critical theorists borrow a technique from biologists called morphologies–which is essentially deconstructing and reconstructing things. It involves determining the 5 W’s plus H–who, what, where, why, when, and how–and then taking those things and moving them around. So, for example, at a car manufacturer, a marketing director might be in charge of making a decision about the features of a new automobile. But when it actually comes to building the vehicle and evaluating its safety, it becomes clear that the decision should really be made by the design engineers. This crucial insight is merely based on switching around the roles. Practice your morphological thinking by asking these questions: who isn’t in the case that should be? What if the sequence of events were changed? The answers might just surprise you.
Pull a string. Questions make us improvise since we don’t know where they’re going to take us. We have to be ready to do things that we might not yet realize we’ll need to do. This involves dialogical learning–which simply means making sense out of things by talking about them with other people. Dialogical learning leads us in a million different directions. In all cases and stories, there is a high degree of ambiguity. And each time we consider the question, we will come up with new interpretations and connections–not unlike the way we respond to religious parables. For example, an inexperienced leader may fire someone for repeated tardiness, but the more experienced leader may inquire as to what is making that employee late. Perhaps this person is a stellar employee who’s working two jobs to make ends meet, and, with a small raise, he or she will be able to drop the other job. The more experienced leader is willing to pull the string and can see that it is, in fact, the opposite of firing that needs to be done. Figure out where and how you can pull a string by asking these questions: what does this mean? What do we do? These are the most important–and most intertwined–of all the innovation questions you can ask.
Innovation is a perpetual work-in-progress. It’s an ongoing learning experience that’s more cyclical than linear. You start–and end–with a question. If you’re looking for answers, then you’re missing out on unexpected opportunities. The people who think they’ve found the final answer or the right solution are the ones who are too late for the next case, the new challenge that’s already here.