Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Getting the right question is half the battle

I return once again to one of my favorite sayings, by Stephen Covey, who said (I'm paraphrasing): sharpen the saw before you start cutting the wood.  It's a really simple thought - do the right things to prepare before you start a big task, but we lose sight of what adequate preparation looks like in so many activities.  There are several reasons for this.

First, many corporate activities are second nature.  We know how to do them by heart, so preparation feels like wasted time.  Second, we are used to last minute requests for information that don't seem to allow time to think or prepare.  This way of working has become second nature.  Third, in a very time bound and time restricted world, preparation doesn't always feel like value added time.  It can easily feel like time that was lost.  Fourth, time spent in preparation calls into question the knowledge and capabilities of the individual or team.  Shouldn't they already know this stuff?  Thus it is that so many non-standard corporate activities and projects end up with poor preparation, later lamenting the fact that if only they'd taken more time to prepare, they would have done a much better job.

Everything I've written to this point is true about just about any corporate task that isn't a regular, regularly repeated task, but it is especially true about innovation.  And while we could spend the next few minutes exploring the concept of learning about innovation tools and methods, or spending time doing deep exploratory research or discovery, I'm going to spend my time today on one of the most important preparatory activities - getting to the right question.

The Right Question

The reality is that once a framework or goal is established, everything you do is restricted or enabled by that question or framework.  I was participating in a strategic planning session recently when I witnessed first hand how much a poorly thought out question can derail a good working session.

Something as simple as how a question was worded left the team perplexed and confused.  Was the purpose to explore how to generate more revenue, or more profit?  Was the purpose to create really differentiated products, or should the team explore alternative solutions - business models, experiences and channels?  Since the question was not thought out in advance and did not align to the work that was being done, it caused more confusion than it created clarity.

The concept of a really well defined question is so important that Warren Berger wrote a book about it.  He calls this book A More Beautiful Question.  Getting the correct context, purpose and intent in a question or framing provides direction for any team, but especially for an innovation team.  If you need more proof about the importance of getting the framing right, go back to Einstein.

Einstein was asked:  if you had an hour to solve a difficult problem, how would you spend that hour?  Einstein replied:  I'd spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and the last five minutes generating a solution (again paraphrasing). 

Generally Applicable Everywhere

Unlike a lot of other tools and methods, stopping to get the question right is an approach that is useful and applicable to almost any business activity that is new or unusual, whether the topic is growth, innovation, a significant course correction or something else.  Yet this is another capability that we simply do not teach, do not practice and do not appreciate.

For innovators, getting the question right helps shape the activity, the anticipated impact and the potential range of outcomes.  For example, if I phrase my need or question as:  How might we create new types of food that require less water, I'm likely to generate ideas about plants that need less water to grow.  If I phrase my question as:  How might we reduce water usage throughout the food value chain, I may receive ideas about more drought tolerant plants, but also methods to reduce water usage in food cleaning and in food production.

A simple primer

You've probably noticed a few things about these questions.  First, I started them with a "How might we".  How might we is an aspirational opening, seeking to find viable alternatives.  Use this instead of "Can we", which suggest we might not be able to find such alternatives.  How might we is also inclusive, seeking ideas from everyone (the "we") in the phrase.

Further, these questions follow a pattern.  The "how might we" is almost always followed by a directional verb (increase, decrease, etc) and in many cases with a measurement.  So I could have asked How might we decrease water usage by 20%...  That measurement signals how disruptive the ideas must be.  5% reduction may be easily achieved (incremental) but 20% may be a major shift and require radically new and different ideas.

Another portion of the question may describe a location, place or process.  This further refines the question to make it more specific.  In my first question I did not address where in the food cycle to remove water usage, so the most likely outcome is to remove water that irrigates crops.  In the second question I was more specific - in the food value chain - I open up ideas from any place water is used, whether that is in irrigation, washing the crops, processing, shipping, freezing or preserving and so on.

A pause that inspires and accelerates

There was an old marketing slogan about soft drinks when I was growing up - Coca-Cola marketed its soft drinks as a "pause that refreshes".  In the same way I'd like to introduce the idea that creating a valuable, meaningful question is a pause - it does take a little bit of time - that can inspire and accelerate you and your team to the best possible ideas.

There are some really basic skills that you can teach people in your organization, that will help them in their strategic and innovation tasks immensely.  Creating a good question that adequately frames what they hope to accomplish and communicate that effectively to others may take a few moments, but it will empower the team to move more effectively, create better outcomes and save time down the road.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:23 AM


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