Three-Step Formula Boosts Innovation Efforts

Asking questions in the right way helps you drive change that is truly innovative.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
February 22, 2012

A lot of theories circulate on how organizations make innovation a reality. Over the past 20 years, I have found a very simple formula that helps a company transform the way it innovates.

Here's the key: Ask the right question, the right way, of the right people. Let's break that down into the three core components. Each component involves powerful questions to ponder.

1. Ask the right question

Issue: An internal focus is sometimes the enemy of innovation.

Many organizations have become overly enamored with idea-management programs. They ask employees for their opinions and suggestions. But having a large number of ideas does not mean you have a useful innovation program.

Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Most organizations are spending 60 minutes working on things that don’t matter.

The first step in the innovation process is to make sure you're working on something of strategic importance. You have to leave the four walls of your company and see what is going on outside. Here are some questions to consider.

  • Do you know what your competitors are doing? How do you differentiate yourself in the marketplace? Innovate where you differentiate.

  • Have you articulated a clear business strategy that drives your innovation strategy? Most business strategies are too fluffy and give little direction.

  • Have you connected with your customers to understand their wants and needs? Have you done ethnographic studies to identify latent needs? Don't rely on focus groups and surveys, which are notoriously inaccurate.

  • Are you addressing your customers’ pains? People are wired to want their pain eased before seeking “gains.”

  • Are you focused on simplification? Too often we over-innovate. But sometimes the best innovation simply reduces complexity and provides accessibility.

2. Ask the question the right way

Issue: A lack of rigor is sometimes the enemy of innovation.

Once you know the right question to ask, the next step is to ask it in the right way. This takes effort and discipline. Individuals and organizations often don’t invest the time framing better questions that lead to better information.

Use the Goldilocks Principle. Make sure you don’t ask questions that are too broad or abstract that lead to fluffy and irrelevant solutions. And don't ask questions that are too specific, as this reduces the possible areas where you can find solutions. You want to frame questions that are “just right. Consider these useful factors when framing questions.

  • What are the leverage points for finding a solution? What is the one thing that has the greatest impact in delivering the desired result?

  • Does your question imply a solution? What are you really looking to achieve? Frame the question so you consider other approaches.

  • Does your question require a particular expertise? If so, re-frame it so that other domains of expertise offer solutions.

  • Is your question overly complex? Find ways to deconstruct it into smaller and more solvable parts.

  • Have you researched the facts your question involves? Too many questions are formulated on conjecture rather than on real data.

3. Ask the question of the right people

Issue: Expertise is sometimes the enemy of innovation.

Experts find solutions quickly, but the odds are they're not new, different or innovative. Studies show that people from a differing area of expertise tend to find breakthroughs. As Will Rogers once said, “There is nothing so stupid as an educated man, if you get him off the thing that he was educated in.”

Your employees are likely to solve most of your challenges. But if you allow them to solve every problem, you may fall victim to a variation on the Pareto principle: 80 percent of your energies are focused on 20 percent of your problems. If you got someone else to work on that 20 percent, you would accelerate your innovation efforts massively.

Asking your questions of the “right people” requires some up-front thinking. Consider these points when you're finding your solutions.

  • Is this in the sweet spot of what your internal experts and employees can solve? If so, let them give it a try.

  • Is it likely that someone has solved this exact problem before? If so, use tech scouting or another method to find existing solutions that you can buy or license.

  • Is there someone else who has solved a problem like this but not this exact problem? If so, look to other areas of expertise for solutions. (This is one of my favorite ways of solving problems.)

  • Can open innovation or crowdsourcing help find solutions? Such an approach is likely to help reduce costs and timeframes.

  • How much context knowledge is necessary to solve this? If a lot of background is needed, forget crowdsourcing, but look into alliance partners (e.g., with universities).

Combine the three-part strategy with other components—motivation and incentive strategies and measures, organization structures and capability building—to enhance innovation in your organization.

The three-part formula we've detailed here gives you the greatest leverage to drive change.

  • Shifting your organization’s culture to ask better questions instead of quickly jumping to solutions helps focus your efforts.
  • Framing questions the right way accelerates solutions.
  • Sourcing your solutions from a variety of places reduces costs and speeds development. It also helps you find breakthroughs that have eluded you in the past.

How will you ask the right question, the right way, of the right people?

Image credit: iStockphoto