Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Which questions are hot, and which are not?

It is said that Einstein's genius lay in asking the questions that no-one had either thought - or dared - to ask before. His two breakthrough questions were apparently 'I wonder what things look like when travelling on the end of a beam of light?', and 'I wonder how gravity works when I jump up while travelling in a descending lift?'.

Interesting questions are not just the preserve of scientists of course - Henry Ford famously said 'if I'd have asked my customers what they want, they'd have said they wanted a faster horse'.

It is well known that it's often finding the new question that drives innovation in business and genuine reform in government, not seeking new solutions to existing questions. Some of today's biggest brand names address questions which hadn't been asked before - like 'how do we get a PC in every home'? and 'how do we organise the world's information?'

The natural language of the new venture is to ask the new question. Mature organisations on the other hand face the innovator's dilemma - the paradox of challenging the very question they have spent years addressing that has made the organisation successful to this point. It is this that often drives the mature business or established government to continually seek out new solutions to the same questions they have been grappling with for a long time, rather than to seek out new questions. Innovation becomes a solutions race, not a questions race. Yet the race often switches to the wrong track as the more solutions in a marketplace, the more saturated it gets, and the more it helps perpetuate the paradigm shift to new competition embracing new markets.

It's not that solutions by themselves are the wrong things for management to find - rather, it’s a matter of balance of finding new solutions to the existing questions with seeking out the new questions.

I had the privilege of hosting an innovation session with a number of executives across private and public sectors recently. One of the things that came out in the discussion was how a major pharmaceutical asks 'no assumptions' innovation questions to inform its R&D. Imagine for a moment you are thinking of starting a restaurant. Now ask yourself what it might look like with no menus, or no way of taking money.

In this spirit, and in a small attempt to balance the amount of dialogue on innovative solutions, I wanted to share the top 3 questions which came out of the day:

- How can we embed 'no constraints' innovation?
- How can we unleash mass-collaboration across the enterprise?
- How can we better understand human systems?

Of the three, I find the last one is the most intriguing. To quote one of the executives at the gathering 'we need to dig far deeper into the human related issues of how organisations as well as markets work in order to achieve the next level of innovation'. If I were to guess which type of question might become very hot sooner rather than later, it is this one.