Sunday, July 10, 2016

Unlocking Innovation: How to know what you don’t know

Remember the old cartoon of the military sergeant who asks one of his troops the difference between ignorance and apathy? The troop’s response: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

I think of that cartoon sometimes when we attend innovation workshops or visit with clients who are dutifully hosting their annual off-site brainstorming retreats or “all hands in the conference room” idea days.  HR brings in the balloons and sticky notes and off we go! Right? Wrong. Innovation doesn’t just happen on-demand; it’s a fluid process that must be cultivated all the time—from all corners of your organization at all levels of the org chart. That way, whenever a customer/client need or opportunity hits, you’re more than ready to fill it.

As the old saying goes: “Good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” But how often are we really prepared when opportunity knocks?

Last month, Michael Dunham, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia, Inc. told me that if you have all the money in the world and a lot of staff, you can just sit around, throw out a bunch of ideas and see what sticks. “That’s not the case here. You need to go stay alert, identify needs that must be filled and then look for creative ways to solve them. My job is to find out what members need before they know they need it and then have a solution waiting when they get there,” said Dunham. See more insights from Dunham here.

Last weekend, Warren Berger, author of the book A More Beautiful Question, argued in a New York Times article that encouraging employees to ask good questions is one of the best things companies can do to help spur innovation. At a time of rapid change and rising uncertainty, Berger wrote there is constant “pressure to keep learning and to keep anticipating what’s next.” In fact, Berger referenced an organization called The Right Question Institute which believes that the simple act of formulating questions “organizes our thinking around what we don’t know.”

Of course, as Berger points out, getting management to respond well to questions is not as easy as training employees to ask more and better questions. “For questions to thrive in a company, management must find ways to reward (not thwart) the behavior.” It could be as simple as publicly acknowledging a “good question” when asked and by encouraging employees to think in terms of “What If?” and “How Might We?” wrote Berger.

The only trouble is that most of the world’s best question-askers don’t work for our companies—they tend to be kids, whose question-asking acumen peaks at age 4 or 5, not 40 or 50, according to researchers.

If your innovation practices still need a jumpstart, we strongly recommend webinars and conferences from the
International Association of Innovation Professionals (IAIOP), where you learn more about the difference between the art and science of outcome driven innovation.

Our blog and website have more about this and related topics. 


According to Berger, “leaders could do more to encourage company-wide questioning by being more curious and inquisitive themselves.” Of course, that takes a great deal of courage whether you’re a sole practitioner or a Fortune 500 exec.

So at the end of the day, how do you know what you don’t know? Simple. Just ask. And never stop thinking like a kid—something my wife says is never a problem for me.


No comments: