Four Questions That Make Better Innovators

Four Questions That Make Better Innovators

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

In 1999, the day before his eighth startup went public, Steve Blank decided to retire at the age of 45. With time to reflect, he sat in a ski lodge and began to write a memoir with a “lessons learned” section at the end of each chapter. “In hindsight, it was a catharsis of moving from one part of my life to another,” he later told me.

“I was 80 pages in when I realized there was a pattern. When I sat inside the building things didn’t go very well, but when I got outside the building things turned around and got much better,” he remembered. What he meant was that it was only when he got out and talked to customers that he could really get a handle on the business.

We like to think that innovation is about ideas, but it’s really about solving problems. In order to surface problems, you need to ask questions, which is why Steve’s businesses started doing better when he got out of the building to talk to customers. The better questions you ask, the better problems you can identify. Here are four questions that will help you do that.


Problems come in all shapes and sizes. Some problems are relatively minor and can be worked around. Others are more fundamental and represent serious impediments to effective operations. Clearly, the more fundamental the problem you can identify, the greater the impact you can create by solving it.

One very effective technique to do that is called the 5 Whys. For example, when NY Times columnist Charles Duhigg noticed that however much he and his wife wanted to get home on time to eat dinner with their kids, they inevitably ended up getting caught up at work and arriving home late, he began to ask “why?”

The first “why” of he and his wife arriving late to dinner was because they had work to finish. Why? Because there were pesky little tasks, like responding to emails, that they needed to get done. Why? Because they couldn’t get to them during the day. Why? Because they arrived at work just before their first meeting. Why? Because they were busy getting the kids ready for school.

By the fifth “why” he realized that the problem wasn’t so much that they got caught up at work, but that it took too long to get the kids ready for school. The conundrum was solved by having the kids lay out their clothes for school the night before. The Duhiggs soon began having family dinners regularly.

It’s an incredibly powerful technique. Each why takes you a bit deeper into the problem and, as you begin to identify root causes, you’ll be able to come up with more effective solutions.

2. Where’s The Monkey?

When I work with executives, they often have a breakthrough idea they are excited about. They begin to tell me what a great opportunity it is and how they are perfectly positioned to capitalize on it. However, when I begin to dig a little deeper it appears that there is some big barrier to making it happen. When I try to ask about that, they just shut down.

One reason that this happens is that there is a fundamental tension between innovation and operations. Operational executives tend to focus on identifying clear benchmarks to track progress. That’s fine for a typical project, but when you are trying to do something truly new and different, you have to directly confront the unknown.

At Google X, the tech giant’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is #MonkeyFirst. The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.

The problem is that most people start with the pedestal, because it’s what they know and by building it, they can show early progress against a timeline. Unfortunately, building a pedestal gets you nowhere. Unless you can actually train the monkey, working on the pedestal is wasted effort.

3. How Will We Fail?

Innovation is not a mere intellectual endeavor. It’s highly emotional. You thrive on your hopes and dreams. That’s what keeps you going and helps you block out doubts, both your own and those of others. Failure is just not something you want to contemplate. It’s just too painful.

Yet thinking seriously about failure can actually help you succeed and there are two techniques that can help you do that productively. The first, called pre-mortems, asks you to imagine that the project has failed and figure out why it happened. The second, called red teaming sets up an independent team to find flaws in the idea.

The idea isn’t to figure out ways to kill the project, but to identify holes to be plugged. For example, when the Obama administration thought it had identified Osama bin Laden’s hideout, it set up a red team to challenge the evidence. Because the red team had no emotional attachment to the initial analysis, they were able to look at it far more objectively.

As we now know, the raid on bin Laden’s compound went ahead, but the red team was able to raise important questions that strengthened the plan. To successfully innovate, you need to do the same. Identify every potential for failure that you can so that you can address those issues before going forward.

4. What Kind Of Problem Are We Trying To Solve?

Go to any innovation conference and you will undoubtedly see a wide variety of innovation experts championing their favored strategy and each will have stories that will amaze you. Design thinking, disruptive innovation, lean startup methods and open innovation have all become buzzwords because they have produced real results.

Yet none of them is a cure-all. Each performs well with some classes of problems, but not so well in others. That’s why in my book, Mapping Innovation, I advocated using the whole innovation toolbox. The trick is to match the right type of problem with the right type of solution.

Innovation Matrix Greg Satell

The truth is that there is no one “true” path to innovation. Many organizations get stuck because they end up locking themselves into a single strategy. They find something that works and say, “this is how we innovate” and end up trying to apply essentially the same solution no matter what the problem is. Eventually, that ends badly.

That’s why it’s so important to ask good questions. Every problem is, to some extent, unique. You can’t simply assume you know the solution beforehand. That’s why Steve Blank’s businesses failed when he stayed “in the building” and prospered when he got out of it. If you want to become a better innovator. Ask better questions.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay

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