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.


  1. Q3 is highly topical in the UK. The corruption in MPs's expenses is both a moral and a systemic failure. Likewise the credit crunch. Likewise the loss of connection between citizens and government evident in poor and declining turnout at elections.

    Moreover, and to ride one of my own hobby horses, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change (climate-cassandra.blogspot.com/2007/11/scenario-planning-for-climate-change.html) we will have to make major systems changes. It won't be enough to install more insulation and build low-carbon power stations; we'll need to make less stuff and travel less. That fits very badly with any economic or social system that is committed to growth. We urgently need innovative thinking to address this problem.

  2. Hi David, I couldn't agree more - and I hope to have something available which can add to the thinking shortly. Best, Carl

  3. Great post, I think the key is the last of three challenges that you set, how to better understand the human system. The other two - no-constraints innovation and mass collaboration across enterprise - are prerequisites to getting the last one right.
    There is also the extension of the second from mass collaboration across the enterprise to mass collaboration across, and beyond, the enterprise and its extended value chain.
    It would seem that at least part of the answer is in how to create the environment in which the human system operates which promotes the behaviors which lead to no-constraints innovation and mass collaboration. The environment supports the eco-system(‘s) within which the human systems operate. One of those eco-systems is the enterprise and its extended value chain.
    So the next question is what are those behaviors which lead to no-constraints innovation and mass collaboration. Followed by what are the environmental qualities which allow the appropriate eco-systems to which would support such behaviors. What are the qualities that act as; accelerators and inhibitors , constraints and incentives, which influence the behavioral outcome, i.e. promote or inhibit the requisite behaviors.
    One of the keys to no-constraints innovation is cross domain groups for cross fertilization of conceptual DNA. In other words the ability of ideas, theory and thought from one specialism to mix with those of one or more other specialism’s.
    Therefore the environment must be able to support the means by which these ideas can be shared and mixed and built upon to create additional sub-domains or entirely new domains in their own right. Communication mechanisms and rules of engagement would seem to be prerequisites to this.

  4. Another element might be competing groups to promote a Darwinian evolutionary effect in innovation creation and the environments and eco-systems within which innovation flourishes. Which bring into play concepts like rewards and punishments, debits and credits, merits and demerits, etc. However to avoid silo and entrenchment effects and to encourage cross fertilization the members of groups would be electively and selectively mixed. Groups might also be disbanded in part of whole and reformed or new groups created from their constituents.
    Sharing of information and outcomes would have to be key. Even where competition is encouraged a statute of limitations on sharing of information would be necessary. The time span could be any amount of time from ‘real time’ sharing of information in seconds to years. Game and economic theory suggests that where possible those who exhibit altruistic behavior will benefit the entire set of groups and therefore also themselves. Those who exhibit selfish behavior will have short term gains but will suffer longer term decline, unless of course they manage to develop a monopoly of some kind.

    What are the principles that guide innovation and collaboration and what are boundaries within which the rewards for the innovation are shared and the collaboration encouraged. The wider the collaborative net to harvest innovative ideas the greater the chance to catch and develop them but also the more widely any rewards that are garnered will have to be shared.
    Human systems are closely bound by group dynamics and group dynamics by the human animal and the constraints that from the boundary of its limitations. The constraints of innovation are to some extent limited to the degree to which the human animal is willing to collaborate given the inhibitors and accelerators within the environment and eco-system that it inhabit.
    At present we are all stuck in very much in a series of, overlapping and nested, siloed human systems in the entire human enterprise from groups such as nation states to families and the individuals within them. The natural state of competition for resources inhibits collaboration as the rewards of innovation favor those who mange to innovate and in human eco-system with limited resources and unequal access to resources accelerates short term non altruistic behavior.

  5. The human animal and it’s preponderance to take, more often than not, the easier softer, short term, live for today pay for it tomorrow, way. MP’s expenses, climate change, city bonus culture, buy one get one free, etc …

  6. York, thank you so much for your comments - most thought provoking. I plan to focus my next posts on human systems aspects.

    Best wishes