Questions are more powerful than answers for innovative leaders

Look for strategic direction at early stages in any project (pic by me of Robert Rauschenberg in MoMA NYC)

Innovation can be a tenuous term where it’s often unclear where to start and what the outcome should be. Many creative thinkers and organisations have therefore created and implemented processes that help guide the path from a solid start to clearly defined measures of success for innovation.

Typical product design cycles go through learn-test-build phases as per Eric Reis’ Lean Startup methodology or standard discover, define, design, develop and deploy stages. Cyclical processes are useful for continuously developing and managing a product over time. Processes in stages are typically used in projects with defined end points and delivery deadlines. Either way, processes aim at retaining flexibility of innovating whilst mitigating risk in keeping products and investments manageable and the outcome viable.

To kick-start creative thinking, meetings or workshops with engineers, product managers, senior stakeholders, designers, copy writers and others are set up, depending on your team structure. “Key to innovation is problem definition” at the very beginning, says Dr Min Basadur, a researcher and consultant for innovation processes.

Brainstorming tries to uncover solutions

Problems arise when brainstorming sessions are used in discovery stages to drive innovation. This is problematic according to Richard Wiseman whose research discovered that most brainstorming sessions look at solutions instead of problem definition. Other sources confirm brainstorming’s limits to idea generation. People reach irrational conclusions in groups due to highly biased assessments of the situation. The illusion of unanimity is created by vocal members of a group who dominate the conversation. Sometimes, workshop members may just conform to the opinion of the “highest paid person in the room”, one sided and self-censored conversations are the result.

There are many ways to avoid these challenges, such as Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” method and others that focus on objectivity. The aim should be to open up possibilities but with a clear focus in mind. Objective approaches avoid steering conversations down a narrow path of limited options where business or customer problems aren’t tackled well enough.

Q-storming tries to uncover problems

One such way is question storming or “Q-storming”. When generating solutions you’ll eventually hit a wall because “people keep asking the wrong questions” says Hal Gregersen, who studied how question storming sessions are conducted. Instead of hoping that you’ll emerge from a meeting with “the answer”, the goal is to come out of it with a few promising and powerful questions. Good questions provide a sense of direction and momentum. Warren Berger writing on the power of questions notes:

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.

Question storming was advocated by design thinking heavy weights such as Tim Brown at IDEO and Charles Warren, a UX who moved from IDEO to Google where he created Google+. In Charles’ team the questions were as versatile as “How might we predict an outbreak of flu” or “How might we help people feel more comfortable sharing moments of their lives on social media?”

The way questions are asked will frame the potential answer. For example “How can we build an app?” compared to “How might we build an app?”. As soon as you start using words such as “can” and “should” you imply judgment: The question effectively is “Can we really do it?” By substituting the word “might” you’re able to defer judgment, helping people to create options more freely and opening up more possibilities.

Questions are no substitute for problem definition but powerful starting points for problem discovery.

How to run a Q-storming workshop

The purpose of Q-storming is a strategic direction to focus efforts of problem definition and finally problem solving. Naïve questions such as “What is the most likely problem our customers will have two years from now?” and the quest to find an answer can in itself be a strategic direction for developing a product roadmap.

The structure for Q-storming sessions, a conventional workshop format in three phases diverge-explore-converge works well. A workshop’s beginning looks at opening up the conversation (diverge), followed by a phase of comparing, sifting through and sorting your findings (explore), and finishes with refining, grouping or narrowing down your options to a list of top 3 (converge).

The outcome should be about 50 questions generated in the diverge phase. After 25 questions, most people come to a halt, Hal Gregersen observed. At this point it’s crucial to continue coming up with more questions until 50 is reached, because unconventional and more thought provoking questions are often generated after participants covered all the more obvious questions first. The results will then be distilled down to the three best questions in the converge phase.

Sample questions

Why is … Elon Musk not doing what we do right now? 
 What if … Donald Trump would be at the helm? What could possibly go wrong? 
 How might we … get IDEO involved to tackle a problem like ours? 
 Where are … the trend creating drivers we could benefit from, like “IKEA hacking”? 
 When were … our customers not always right?

So… questions are useful catalysts for providing much needed focus at early project discovery stages, to innovative engineers, product managers, designers, or leaders. “What if” questions help you imagine the future. For coming up with these questions that lead to best-case, worst-case BAU scenarios, Q-storming may one day replace brainstorming altogether. Q-storming sessions work at any company looking for unbiased starting points for problem definition. Its conventional structure and ease of use makes it easy and fun to implement with (almost) any team.

Final takeaway: Question everything! Because, “nothing in life is to be feared, it’s only to be understood” (Marie Curie).
My question to you: “How are you or your organization going about poking holes into your initial assumptions of your products’ success?
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