Hulu, iPhone, and Prius didn’t come to market because their creators asked status quo questions. They didn’t happen because somebody began a meeting with “Who has an idea for improving the industry?” or “How are we going to increase sales?” Those innovations exist because disruptive, transformative, even uncomfortable questions without easy answers were asked.
Through years of working with the world’s leading companies, I’ve witnessed a direct relationship between provocative inquiry and innovation. Teams that ask the hard questions prevent early conclusions: the simple act of inquiry provokes new thinking and has the power to challenge long-held assumptions that create real change.
So what do disruptive questions look and sound like? They usually begin with “how,” “which,” “why” or “if” and are specific without limiting imagination. They focus on generating solutions rather than begging long-winded explanations and place blame, as often-asked ‘close-ended’ questions always do. They awaken the mind rather than put it to sleep. To illustrate, a provocative version of “Who has an idea for improving our product/service?” would be “If we hosted a forum called ‘How Our Products & Services Suck,’ what topics would be on the main stage?” An equally effective version is “Which two things could our competitors do to render our product/services irrelevant?”
I witnessed this approach in action during an annual strategic planning meeting for a global pharmaceutical corporation. A few of the company’s major drugs were going off-patent, and every part of the organization was under pressure to innovate. When the corporate strategy team was invited to join the product team’s brainstorm session, they brought some unexpected questions to the table:
• What are the unshakable industry beliefs about what customers want? What if the opposite was true?
• If you were CEO for one day, which three things would you change to enable growth of our brands?