Unlocking Creativity: Asking Killer Questions

Those of you with little kids can probably recall a time when you were with one of your children – perhaps on a car ride – and they  were engaged with you in conversation where they bombarded you with questions.

Why is the sky blue?   Why do people act that way?  What is steel made of? Why do cars sometimes produce smoke?   Why do some people smoke cigarettes if they know it is bad?  And the deluge went on.

Whether driven by a child’s innate curiosity, or perhaps even their desire to “mess with you” to see what would happen, these interactions have an impact on us.

In my case, I can distinctly remember having my brain kicking into high gear, PARTICULARLY when asked a question about which I had never thought before.   I can recall the stimulation, the energy I FELT because of being challenged by a question that MADE ME THINK.

(In my case I can also remember making up answers on occasion, wanting to be seen as all-knowing in the eyes of my sons.  But, even the act of fabricating an answer can be a stimulating creative process. Think about it.  Developing a made-up answer to an intriguing question from a 6-year old that he would find plausible requires innovative, careful thought.)

What is also interesting to me is how we, as we grow up, seem to rely less and less on asking questions as a means of approaching solutions to problems.  This is a point made by Sir Ken Robinson in one of his TED speeches on why schools kill creativity.  I suppose that as we mature, we become much more self-conscious about revealing our ignorance, and thus tend to ask fewer questions.  As adults, we tend to rely instead on our experiences and education to solve life’s problems.

So maybe asking “loaded” questions just might be powerful tool we can use to stimulate the creative process as we approach wicked problems at work.   As adults, much of the time when we are asked questions, we instantaneously respond when we think we KNOW the answer – which is often.   So the “trick”, so-to-speak, is to think about asking questions that people DO NOT know the answer to – – questions that MAKE US THINK

That is the premise of Phil McKinney’s new book, Beyond The Obvious, which is about how to use provocative questions that can sometimes spark game-changing innovation.

(Phil McKinney has just left Hewlett-Packard where he served as VP and Chief Technology Officer for HP’s $40 Billion Personal Systems Group.)

McKinney’s premise is that there can be an art to framing what he calls “KILLER QUESTIONS”, that is useful to unlocking the creative process.

Why is it that the health care system in Sweden produces better patient outcomes for less money than in the US?  Why do Scandinavians have a longer life expectancy?  How does Apple manage its new product development process?  How will IPADs change the nature of student learning?  How do people form loyalty to a brand?  How do Hispanic customers think about our brand differently than do Caucasian customers?  What distinguishes customers who buy our product from those who don’t?

When we ask provocative questions that we do not know the answer to, we have to think.  This can lead to a hypothesis. That hypothesis, in turn, can lead to the need to investigate, collect data, and do research.  These acts can all stimulate our thinking in exciting new ways.  The acts of developing hypotheses, investigating and drawing new conclusions are at the heart of the scientific method, and also to creative problem solving.   When we force ourselves to go off into uncharted territory, we create new learning.

McKinney tells a story about a time he was in SE Asia riding in a cheap, rickety motorcycle taxi that seemed a life-threatening experience to him.  He started to reflect on the how this taxi was different from a super elegant Harley-Davidson.   This caused him to ask the question, If the motorcycle was initially a low-cost transportation solution for people who couldn’t afford cars, what caused the idea of taking the motorcycle and turning it instead into an ultra-luxury product costing many thousands of dollars?  How did they consider going the “opposite” way?   Then he thought about HP (his company).  “Why don’t we”, he thought, “stop trying to make our products cheaper?  What if we, too, tried to go the other way?”  When he considered this idea, he imagined that this new way of thinking ran against conventional wisdom within HP at the time, so he wondered how he could shift people’s thinking about the problem. He wrote down this question when he got to his hotel “Who is passionate about our products and/or something that they relate to?”    To McKinney this was a “Killer Question” that led to thinking about a sub-segments of customers for whom price doesn’t matter so much, but who do care about performance or other attributes.   Can you see where such a new thought stream might lead?

In McKinney’s model, there are three categories of Killer Questions:

1)      Who is your real customer?  If you sell cars for example, it is natural to imagine that some cars, like mini-vans, are sold to women, while others like Hummers are sold to guys.  While this may partly right, research shows that while men may sign the purchase contract, women are principal influencers of the family car purchase decision.  Not considering their perspective can be problematic for any car company.

2)      What do you really sell to them?   If you sell a wireless phone are you selling a phone?  a communications device? a navigation system? an entertainment system? a learning tool? a means of staying connected with people? or a sense of freedom (not being tethered to a land line)?  Of course the answer is all of these, and the importance of each attribute may vary widely in importance depending on the category of user.  As you think about a phone product along EACH of these dimensions, it makes you consider different product attributes.

 3)      How does your organization operate?  Moving from good idea through successful execution can be problematic.  Understanding the biases your organizational culture imposes can help you think through strategies for preserving your product innovation idea.   (If your organization has a bias for low-cost vs. high performance, launching a niche luxury product or service may be highly problematic.

The Problem with Questions?

Remember being a Dad (or Mom), and being asked questions by your kids.  At a certain stage in their lives they think you must know virtually everything.  When you realize that you don’t, you make it up so as to preserve the myth.  As adults at work, when we ask provocative questions, don’t people have the same kind of reaction?  If you feel perhaps “I SHOULD know that answer”, it can be a little disconcerting.  You feel embarrassed, or as though you are being personally challenged – and the creative process shuts down.  Our insecurities can lead to feelings of defensiveness, rather than triggering a quest for new discovery.

If you want to get a deeper sense of McKinney’s viewpoints, here is one of his talks on the Future of Innovation

Check out McKinney’s book as well.  It might challenge you to ask some new killer questions of your own.



Filed under Innovation

3 responses to “Unlocking Creativity: Asking Killer Questions

  1. Fransi Weinstein

    Great article! But I think you have forgotten the large (sadly) number of executives and employees who don’t ask the questions because they don’t want to hear the answers. How do we change them? How do we open their minds? How do we get their bosses and Boards to understand that that kind of thinking — or the lack there of) should be career-limiting? What kind of ‘test’ can we create to make sure we hire people who will ask the questions to force us to think differently?

  2. Excellent point Fransi –without a culture that supports open questioning, team learning, and exploration, few innovation initiatives will succeed in big ways.

    Sometimes we can’t find the way to open people’s eyes. However, sometimes a good crisis can be a catalyst.

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