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Big Innovations Question the Status Quo. How Do You Ask the Right Questions?

Many disruptive innovations pose simple questions about the status quo. So how do you ask the right questions?

What if someone sold socks that didn't match? In his new book Disrupt, Luke Williams, a veteran of frog design, talks about how that offbeat question was the impetus for the launch of Little Miss Matched, a company whose purposely mismatched socks proved surprisingly popular with young girls. It's one of a number of examples Williams cites of new business innovations that began with what he calls "a disruptive hypothesis." Another better-known one is Netflix, whose business model provided an answer to the question, What if a video rental company didn't charge late fees?

Breakthroughs are often born with someone asking "What if??"

It's interesting that when you deconstruct stories of innovation, you find that many of them start with a question—often one that could be considered provocative, naïve, or maybe even a little crazy. In my own research into the design world, I found that breakthroughs ranging from the OXO potato peeler to the Cheetah prosthetic foot could be traced back to someone, somewhere, asking "What if??"

Likewise, a number of today's hottest tech startups came into being as an attempt to answer ambitious questions like, What if we could somehow crowdsource everything a city has to offer? (Foursquare) or, What if we could get any question immediately answered by the world's smartest people? (Quora).

On one level, this doesn't come as too much of a surprise: It's fairly well understood that one must question assumptions and challenge conventional wisdom in order to innovate. No less an authority than Einstein has told us, It's all about the questions, stupid. (Okay, I?m paraphrasing Einstein there, but he actually did once say that if he only had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he'd devote the first 55 minutes to figuring out the right question to answer.)

Why are so many of us reluctant to question?

But this raises an interesting you-know-what: If we can see that questions are linked to innovation and problem-solving, why are so many of us reluctant to ask them? A recent University of Michigan study found that people in business are generally loathe to raise questions?primarily because they fear that anyone who asks fundamental questions will be perceived as incompetent or uninformed. And if anything, this problem seems to worsen over time as people gain more experience and expertise in their fields. After all, experts know they're supposed to supply answers, not more questions.

To be fair, this is not just a business-world failing. When I discussed the subject of "questioning" a while back with Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of the TED Conference and a man who's pretty much obsessed with questions, he immediately focused on the educational system. 'In school, we're rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question,' Wurman pointed out. Which may explain why kids—who start off asking endless "why" and 'what if' questions—gradually ask fewer and fewer of them as they progress through grade school. And, Wurman observed, the questions they do ask tend to become "smaller and more proscribed."

Questioners must look at an existing reality from multiple views.

As for the ones who don't stop asking questions? They're more apt to become our top innovators and business leaders. A study of some 3,000 creative executives, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and the INSEAD business school, found that what linked all of these Steve Jobs-types, perhaps more than anything else, was their curiosity and willingness to question—?the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children,? according to Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of the study.

Of course, it's not just a matter of being willing to question—it's also important to know how to question. Innovation is driven by questions that are original, bold, counterintuitive, and perceptive. Some of the designers I've talked to about questioning—people like Wurman, Stefan Sagmeister, Yves Behar, and others—have observed that coming up with the right question, the one that casts a familiar challenge in a new light, is an art and science in itself. It demands that the questioner be able to look at an existing reality from multiple viewpoints, including, perhaps most importantly, that of the "naïve outsider."

In this era of Google,, and now Quora, we've come to expect quick answers to whatever questions pop into our heads. But the best innovators know that when it comes to answering profound, game-changing questions, a much more exhaustive kind of "search" is required. The question must be lived with; over time it may be expanded, then honed and refined. It is apt to launch the questioner on a journey of inquiry that may involve in-depth observation, combinatory and lateral thinking, experimentation, and prototyping (after all a prototype, to quote IDEO's Diego Rodriguez, is itself ?a question, embodied?).

In my next post, I'll explore some more thoughts from top innovators on the art of asking questions, while also further examining the path that leads from question to breakthrough. In the meantime, I?m collecting "beautiful questions" and stories about the power of questions to trigger innovation and change; leave comments here or at my new website, A More Beautiful Question.

[Top image by Horia Varian]

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  • re:invention, inc.

    Smart of Mark to ask about the study source. University of Michigan's own research library suggests that the study does not exist (or it was never published). Could you point us to your reference? Thanks!

  • Mark Strom

    You wrote:
    "A recent University of Michigan study found that people in business are generally loathe to raise questions..." That certainly matches my own experience.Can you point me to the original University of Michigan study. I have Googled everything I can think of but without success.Thanks.

  • Laura

    Tina I'm so happy you mentioned the 'question-shy' mentality. I couldn't agree more. I find it overwhelmingly frustrating that we are saddled with an outdated teaching method, in both the work place and in the school environment, and yet still I find myself thankful that we are given choices and 'can' question the world around us. I work for the nonprofit Nuru International; we were built on the foundations of Design Thinking, and as an organisation use Design Thinking in every part of our development. Our mission is to end extreme poverty; the question for us was how do we do it? Our answer is to keep questioning, when we enter a community the first thing that we do is ask questions, listen, and then innovate. We ask 'what are the needs of these people?' And then once we have listened to the needs we listen to the ideas the local people have to resolve their issues. We have found this approach hard, it is not because people in the developing world lack the ideas but rather are 'question shy' a mentality created by dated teaching methods. So now we find ourselves teaching Design Thinking as well as best practice water sanitation methods, our aim is to empower the developing world to ask more questions and to teach the skills these people need to lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

  • Howard Book

    Berger's comments are spot on. They bring to mind the thesis that the trouble with answers is that they kill the question. Creativity is linked to the capacity to tolerate not knowing, to seek out paradoxes, to withstand the temptation of early closure, and to nurture the "courage of one's own stupidity" in questioning commonly accepted assumptions

  • Greg English

    The "What if" is used almost daily in my history class of 8th graders. I love them and have created hundreds of them to use over and over each year. I get lots of very good answers and jumping off points that lead to more "what if" questions. Sometime we fill the whole hour with one "what if". They may start with "What if the Americans had not won the Battle of New Orleans?" or "What if the U.S. had not okayed the Louisiana Purchase?" I love these things and it gets the kids back into their own 'endless “why” and “what if” questions'.

  • Susana King

    I launched a multi-brand sample program targetted at newlyweds, in conjunction with a major department store wedding registry. As an advertising account executive I knew many brands wanted a newlywed sampling program but couldn't afford the cost. So.....what if several non-competing brands shared the cost of packing and distribution ???? Result: a highly successful multi-brand program and a very profitable business for me !!

  • alain uceda

    since school days we've been prepared to give the right answer, which is the rightest way to keep the world as it is. as we become adults, answering (i.e. giving just the "right" answer) acts as our password to next level, our aim is continously estimulated to find answers not questions. the whole system seems to protect itself by activating this pattern whenever it is useful. therefore (as in many countries nowadays) we are pushed to answer how to save the financial global system and not to question it.

  • Hal Amens

    Answers are end points. Questions point in directions to start or continue the exploration. Questions require a commitment of time. Answers, at least by definition, good answers provide the rewards for time well spent. The real art is knowing when to quit and when to continue.

    Most of us quite too early, too often.

  • Mark Kruger

    Spot on. The potential of Asking the Right Question will always enjoy a prized and provocative role in the cosmic drama of human history.

  • Bozee

    As someone who tries to come up unique and better products as answers to the ultimate short question "Why?", which then often begets "What if". Questions suggest more questions.

    I applaud the article and thoughts, but any successful project or product involves continual questions & contesting answers or solutions and it is a battle of ideas to get good answers.

    It takes both the question What If, the mental manipulations to get a potential answer, trials, and then carrying through with full execution. So I value more than the initial question as integral to getting TO THE RIGHT QUESTION. It is the back and forth between questions and the contesting answers that go back and forth that lead to solutions or even just the right question.

    It is complex in asking "why?" because it leads to "what if?" and then "this might work" and when the prototype is done, you ask the same questions over again.

    Then the tough question's arise in asking "What if we make a ... tougher less expensive product..." or similar question and it is very complex since a better product might not sell, so it becomes very complex. But it is what leads to advances that others have given up on.

    I love the article and thoughts.

  • Bruce Crawford

    You are so right! Being an inventor myself, I have found that when I come up with a new product idea, I immediately change gears. Before I even start to make a prototype, I ask myself a multitude of questions. Are there better, easier, simpler, etc. ways to do or make this. As each new concept comes to mind, I try to prove to myself why it won't work. It is a process that evolves.
    Like you, I think this article is great! I also agree with your comment,
    "It is complex in asking "why?" because it leads to "what if?" and then "this might work" and when the prototype is done, you ask the same questions over again."
    I'm really glad to have found this forum.

  • Tina Chi

    This is a very interesting and well-written article on a great topic! Mr. Crockett makes a good point as well. It is indeed a shame that most people tend to be "question-shy" and that questioning things is overwhelmingly frowned upon in the workplace and general business world--even in schools.

  • Eric Crockett

    Just reading the title of this article reminds me. Its not the answers that determine the smartest people in the room, its the best questions that determine the smartes people in the room.

    Eric Crockett