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3 Questions That Kill Innovation — and What to Ask Instead

The questions you ask can derail your progress, or empower your business.


Questions are powerful tools — as essential to investors and venture capitalists researching opportunities as they are to entrepreneurs seeking the best ways to innovate and thrive in their startups. But, as I’ve seen in 25 years of consulting to large corporations, questions can derail, sucking the energy out of a room, or they can be empowering, bringing new life to ideas.

Related: 5 Habits That Made Elon Musk an Innovator

One of my colleagues, Jonathan Goodman, the global managing partner of Monitor Deloitte, is fond of saying, “The most powerful tools executives have to drive change are their questions.” This can be as true for an early stage company working to scale as it is for a Fortune 50 powerhouse.

So, every leader should keep in mind: change the question, change the outcome.

The first question that kills innovation: What’s the ROI?

When I see innovation teams asked this question, they typically become immediately defensive. Instead of considering the question behind the question (why is this a better investment than alternatives?), they round up all the facts and data they need to prove their position on an absolute basis. Then, the executives asking the questions become so overwhelmed with slides and data, they dig in to challenge the evidence on hand and they seem to forget the reasoning behind their question.

Asking for the return on investment also implies that you can predict market results precisely. A better way to capture the imprecision of forecasts around something that doesn’t yet exist in the world — with inherent volatility of possible results — is to ask, “What’s a reasonable range of outcomes for our investment?” This gives the space for the responder to share investment-driving detail and triggers conversations about possible outcomes, not an evaluation of whether an investment meets a financial threshold. The time for a discussion about relative performance can come only once real market data can be obtained.

Related: Disruption vs. Innovation: Defining Success

The second question that kills innovation: Has anyone done this before?

In many situations this question is about assessing risk — not marketplace risk, but the personal risk facing the decision-makers. This question is really asking, “How hard is this going to be to get to market?” That’s a legitimate concern. However, it’s better addressed through influencing company dynamics and culture, not by asking this particular question. Being concerned by what others are doing creates unnecessary and wasteful work, as it sends innovation teams searching for (or even inventing) analogs that may not exist. Worst case, this question might even change the nature of the imagined innovation, forcing it to fit the mold of something that exists already rather than being genuinely new.

Try asking, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of being first?” This leads to a more productive discussion about various possibilities while keeping the idea itself intact.

Related: The Science of Innovation: How to Imagine the Unimaginable

The third question that kills innovation: How can we prove this will work?

Another colleague, Larry Keeley, coauthor of The Ten Types of Innovation, is fond of saying, “If you use the words ‘prove’ and ‘it’ in the same sentence, you’re killing innovation.” Why? Because the only way you can definitively prove something will work is to do it in the marketplace. Any other type of “proof” that is provided is likely an illusion presented by mountains of slides filled with analysis, none of which really offer a definitive answer. Which means, you will likely ask for even more proof.

Instead, ask, “How could we learn more?” This clarifies that you, too, are in exploratory mode. You place the value on the information, not the decision.

Now for the questions that drive innovation.

What might be another possible way to tackle this problem?

Instead of immediately rejecting a solution or concept, this question encourages entrepreneurs to consider alternate solutions. It can also help clarify what problem is being solved, and having a clear problem triggers a clear solution. When you can’t even remember what you’re trying to solve, you need to go back to the drawing board. If you can come up with multiple ways to solve the problem, you know you’ve got clarity.

Related: This Innovation Expert’s Research Shows How Anyone Can Be Like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs

Which customers will love this? And, which customers will hate this?

I like any question that forces people to really think about customer needs. Framing a question around a customer need helps many organizations break free of their tendency to be internally focused. There are always pockets of customers who have very different needs, attitudes and behaviors. Getting precise about which group of customers will love an idea will give you a better sense of where you’ll win in the marketplace, allowing you to better assess the economic potential of any opportunity.

What behaviors will lead to success and drive our economics?

This focuses the attention on a clear place where a solution is the cause and the behavior is the effect. Whether the target “actor” is a prospective customer or a line employee, you need to be precise about the behavior you’re trying to drive, the economic value when it occurs and what success looks like, in order to set up a system with maximum insight and control over the impact of your innovation.

How might we move faster? Or, if we had to try something today, what would it be?

This approach cuts to the chase and helps focus on what’s important: getting something done. It separates the need-to-have from the nice-to-have. Plus, it provides a glimpse of the next move. These types of question force teams to say, “Hey, that’s not bad, we should just try it.” And smart, focused action is what you should be looking to drive.

Knowing the right questions, or simply knowing how to flag the wrong questions, leads to better communication, better productivity and a better product. I have seen it in action in the world’s largest corporations for decades. Entrepreneurs and investors alike should heed these learnings as they seek to drive return from innovation.

Related Video: How to Inspire Innovation Within Your Business

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