Strategy, brainstorming facilitation, and CEO coaching in Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles

The power of asking the right questions

One of the most powerful ways of getting the best ideas from brainstorming  and sparking creativity is to start with the right question.

The opposite is also true – you can spin your wheels, and kill ideation by asking the wrong question.

Too often, brainstorming meetings get stuck in a rut. They either cycling over the same ideas, go off on a tangent that ends up miles from your business, or is simply uninspired and flat. Most often, it’s because we started with the wrong question – one that is either closed-ended, suggests a solution, or is too wide open.

A common myth about creativity

One of the most persistent fallacies of creativity is that to be creative, we need to remove the boundaries and that brainstorming needs to be wide-open. The reality is that we need some boundaries and direction to have our best ideas. With no guideposts, or no starting point, we have nothing with which to associate, and nothing to challenge our thinking and take it in a new direction. In the absence of boundaries,  we either rehash the familiar, or come up with ideas that are so far off the charts that they have no applicability to the market at hand. No doubt you’ve witnessed both.

So what is the right question? 

The right question is focused, and at the same time, open-ended. Many of our best ideas come from the intersection of two, seemingly opposed ideas, or in the new application of an existing product. The right question is focused enough to give our creative minds a jumping-off point, but open-ended enough to not suggest a solution.

Let’s take two trends that are the topics of many brainstorming meetings in many businesses right now – social media and mobile. Nearly every business is trying to determine how they should be incorporating social media and mobility into their product or service. Here are a couple of examples of both good and bad questions with which to launch a brainstorming session:

Good questions: Social media:

How would our business change if people could share what they are doing with our product on social media? 

In what ways could they engage with other friends using our product through Facebook, twitter, and LinkedIn using our product?

What if Facebook was the only way you could interface with our product. What would that look like?

What works about these questions – they focus the team on how customers might actually use the product with social media, and how it might enhance the product experience. The questions are directed towards the intersection of the product and social media, and at the same time, open enough as to not suggest an answer.

The wrong questions – social media:

What could we do with Facebook? 

What’s wrong with this question? It’s at once too wide open, and too focused on technology. With no jumping off point, and nothing for our brains to pattern-make with, you’ll  get two types of responses – the same-old-same-old ideas that your competitors are using, or ideas that are focused purely on the technology, such as the Facebook API, that may or may not have a real-world value to your customers.

How do we get people to “Like” us on Facebook?

While this might be a perfectly legitimate tactical question, when it comes to brainstorming product ideas, this is a closed-ended question disguised as an open-ended question. It suggests that “Liking” on Facebook is the right answer to how people want to engage with your product on Facebook. The ideas you that will flow from this question will be far from revolutionary. They will be purely tactical solutions on how to motivate people to press Like on Facebook or integrate with the Like feature.

Good questions – Mobility:

What would our customers want to be doing with our product while on driving to a meeting, or waiting in an airport lounge? 

What if we know the precise location of all of our customers through their smart phone? What would that tell us about them, and how could we improve what we offer them and improve our relationship with them?

What works about these questions is that they get the team into the mindset of the customer, thinking about how they would actually use the product in their context. They can envision themselves in the customer’s shoes, waiting for a delayed flight in an airport lounge, and pulling out their smartphones to pass the time. It gets the team away from the technology for technology’s sake, and focused on customer value. At the same time it’s open enough to bring out creative solutions.

The wrong questions – Mobility

How do we tap into the incredible growth in mobile? 

This question focuses on a broad market opportunity, and so the ideas you will get will be broad and mostly irrelevant. Again, without a jumping off point, you will get every idea from creating a new smartphone, to building games, to virtual snow-globes. This is simply a high-level question that should lead you to more detailed brainstorming and idea making.

What should our product look like on a tablet?

This question will have the team focused on things like the form factor itself, like the screen size. In the early, fuzzy stages of ideation, the team will spin their wheels on things like button size and fonts – things that are largely irrelevant until you actually start prototyping and building the product – after you’ve decided what you’re going to build and why.

Inspiration is 99% preparation. 

Productive brainstorming requires preparation and forethought. For every hour you’ll spend brainstorming, you need to spend at least an hour preparing the environment, the tools, and the right questions you’ll need to get the best ideas flowing from the team.

If you’re not happy with where your brainstorming is going, and the results you’re getting, change the question.

2 Responses to “Asking the right questions”

  1. olivierlehe

    Very good post. Creativity is not coming from nothing: this is absolutely true. Even if we don’t know what will be the best idea, the direction needs to be made. This is very good! Many thanks.

  2. olivierlehe

    Reblogged this on World Of Innovations and commented:
    This post about creativity, how to organize brainstorming and how to ask questions for catalyzing creativity is absolutely right. To be read urgently.


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