Ask the right question

A spirit of inquiry animates the practice of collaborative innovation.

What questions, were we to pursue them together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs?

Creative thinkers such as Art Van Gundy, Peter Block, the creators of the World Café, and others guide us in articulating the intent behind and in phrasing the grammar for questions, themselves.

How might maximize the outcomes from our engagement by the questions we ask?

In other words we do not lack for guidance or direction when it comes to challenge question formation.

And yet, why is it that people in organizations struggle with this seemingly simple, yet materially important aspect of the practice?

As one client observed to me in a moment of frustration with her practice and her team, “We’re not very good at asking questions, are we?” This client, in a moment of candor, found truth: a truth shared by many teams. When it comes to crowd sourcing or collaborative innovation, we live in a “garbage in , garbage out” world.

Challenges to Question Formation

Teams struggle for any number of reasons. I share here the common reasons I have observed.

1) The group suffers from a lack of spirit of exploration and discovery.

I observed once a group frame a set of compelling, valid challenge questions. They then dismissed each one, one by one. Why?

The team asserted to one another, with the backing of the leader, that “they had heard it all before” and, thus, what was point in posing a question when they could with certainty predict the responses.

Had they resolved the underlying problem? No.

Was resolving the problem materially important to the organization? Yes.

My visceral reaction in hearing this dialogue went from being dismayed in their lack of faith in the community’s potential for creativity (i.e., for coming up with ideas that had never been considered before) to their unwillingness to consider that they might create something new out of whole cloth, if they gave themselves a chance.

Entrepreneurship—the basis for fomenting a culture of innovation—is an expression of faith. Faith in oneself. Faith in one’s ideas. The lack of faith expressed in the response, “why bother?” dismayed me. They put themselves beyond the possibility of fomenting an innovative culture with this attitude.

2) A lack of practice.

Nine times out of ten—maybe 99 times out of 100—when we convene, we expect to provide insights, ideas, or answers. We are hired, after all, by what we know. Exploratory dialogue is often not thought of as “work.” (It is.)

And, yet, what I find with clients is that there is no shared understanding of (a) the critical question or (b) how that question is best phrased to reflect the true nature of the problem. I find, for example, declarative statements serving as the question: the witness is being led. I find complex and compound questions set out to cover all the bases: impossible for the recipients to unravel.

I have come to believe that this problem is due to a lack of practice. Unlike the first scenario, in which the group chooses not to ask the question, in the second scenario the group may want to ask the question but may not be in a good enough shape on account of lack of practice to do so.

The remedy here is simple: practice. Start by picking up a copy of Van Gundy’s Getting to Innovation. Then practice writing your own question bank.

3) Poor aim.

Clients at times ask me if they have “the right” or “a good” question. If there is a secret handshake, then would I be so kind as to show it to them?

I am here to tell you, reader, that there is no secret handshake. One of the pleasures of the practice of collaborative innovation is that there are an infinite number of compelling, valid questions one could ask a community. The one lever that can be pulled in this scenario is the lever of transformative power.

That is, if you ask a narrowly framed question, you will get a limited set of similarly constrained responses in kind by way of ideas. If you open the aperture, the ideas open in their breadth, in kind.

For example, let us say you work for a law firm. You want to explore what services you can provide your clients: ultimately, to grow your share of their legal services wallet. You might ask…

How might we maximize the share of wallet we enjoy with our corporate clients?

This sort of question might elicit all manner of ideas on new business development.

You might also ask…

How might we maximize our standing with clients through the services we offer them?

Here, you might receive a more limited—but no less compelling—set of ideas. Perhaps some services—but not all services—are perceived as being marquee in nature. Perhaps an increased stature opens new doors. This question might open the possibility of explaining the relationship between brand, position, and the offer, assuming that linkage interested the firm.

Are both questions valid? Yes.

Are they thematically similar? Yes.

Do they open different doors of exploration? Yes.

Learning how to aim comes with the thoughtful application of the practice over time.

The Real Work of Inquiry

Two actions—basic in nature—help us foment a culture of innovation: posing the compelling, critical question and capturing one’s observations on the world around us. Our observations—what we see, feel, hear, or otherwise experience—are the fodder for our fully formed ideas.

Creating a culture of innovation is not by comparison an exercise in IT enablement or planning off-site meetings that overlook the company’s retention pond stocked with koi fish. Instead, it’s an exercise in courage and belief: courage to ask the question weighing on everyone’s mind and belief in the people who might respond to the question with their observations, implications, and applications—their fully formed ideas.

All the rest—the meetings, the off-sites, the agendas, the IT enablement, etc.—serves as a means to that end. Good news: the barriers to the practice of collaborative innovation are low.

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