How To Ask Questions For Innovation

Innovation is driven by questions not answers. Questions send people on a journey. But not all questions and journeys are equal. Many questions rehash old territory, only confirming something can’t be done. While other questions expose assumptions, unlock creativity, and focus on how it can be done. Here’s how to ask questions for innovation.

A nonprofit organization came to me to help them with their managers who knew how to get things done, but weren’t developing people along the way. Employees felt used and uncared for by these managers. Employee turnover was high. Many simply moved on to other organizations that provided more personal and professional development.

5 Ways To Ask Questions For Innovation

Let me illustrate how to ask Innovation Questions using my work with the nonprofit above as an example. I’ll tell you what I did, then share each point.

I met with the nonprofit’s leadership team. They told me these managers didn’t want to change because they valued “tangible results” and weren’t very relational. The leadership team told me why things are the way they are. It certainly looked grim.

“What if these managers could achieve tangible results and develop people?” I asked. The team told me why that couldn’t happen. I pressed. “But what if they could? What would happen in your organization?”

1. Question Reality

“Well,” the Executive Director said, “people would stop leaving. If we kept employees and they developed, we would achieve better results. But developing people takes time and energy and money – three things we don’t have. When we focused on that in the past, people left anyway after we trained them.”

“What if achieving results and developing people were not separate activities? What if your organization had a way to develop people while achieving results?”

2. Question Assumptions

“That would be great,” he said. “But how?”

“That’s a helpful question,” I responded. “And that’s the question we’re going to answer, ‘How can we develop people while achieving results.’ ”

3. Ask For A New Reality

I led the team through a discussion of this question. They quickly focused on what hasn’t worked, couldn’t work, and why they can’t make it work. “Assume you can,” I urged them. “What things would need to change?”

With each objection, I refocused them by asking, “Assume that wasn’t true, now what?”

4. Ask For What Might Work If Things Were Different

In a surprisingly short period of time, some of the leadership team became frustrated and wanted to “accept reality and move on.”

They needed to hold the tension longer. I went up to the empty white board and drew a line down the middle. Turning to them, I said, “Everything you’ve talked about this morning is over here,” pointing to the right side of the line, “what is over there?” pointing to the left.

5. Keep Questioning

I’d like to tell you the leadership team achieved breakthrough that day. They didn’t. But our discussions did open up new possibilities, that, as they explored them, led them to answers. These answers involved changes in the job description for managers, coaching skills training, manager selection, and few other things. The point is, there wasn’t a simple solution. It required multiple elements prompted from several new ways of thinking. Questions got them there.

Innovation Begins And Ends With Questions

There are many paths to approach a problem. The direct approach rehashes reality, and why it is that way. Rather than exposing new possibilities, more often than not, we confirm what we knew to be “true”.

Instead, take a path around, under, or even over the problem. Take two things that contradict each other and question the assumptions that put them at odds with each other. Ask,

  • What if…?
  • How can…?
  • Assume X was not true, now what?
  • Assume X was true, now what?

Don’t give up quickly. Sit with the contradictions and think longer. Solutions come from changing our minds about what could be if things were different.

Question: What questions have you heard prompt innovation? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    One thought on “How To Ask Questions For Innovation

    1. I agree with each point, and I’d like to add that one thing that helps people think in new ways is to change the environment of that discussion.

      Our brain likes to go down well-worn neural pathways. When we have these discussions in the same office where they’ve always taken place, we are more likely to get the same answers- it’s just too big of a jump to build a new neural pathway. This is the advantage of off-sites whenever we are hoping for new or innovative thinking. The new surroundings (sights, sounds, smells textures) provides a richer source for new connections/neural pathways to be made.