Asking the Right Question to Create Innovation

This is part of my reflections from the OpsInsight Forum in Boston.

One of the breakout sessions that I attended at the OpsInsight Forum focused on innovation.  David Silverstein from BMGI led a great discussion on how to ask a different question in order to stir new innovation.

(Side note: He had innovation in his presentation…be didn’t use any slides.  It was a per discussion.  Almost like you ran into him in the hall.  Very well done.)

Here is the simple question that David presented to stir the creative juices: “What are wee hiring the product/service to do?”

David then gave a couple of examples to drive home his point.

Example #1:

In the 1880s, candle makers wanted to be more innovative.  If they wanted to improve, what were they working on?  Making candles that don’t drip?  Scented?  Candles that burned longer?  Burned cleaner?  Easier production processes?

Now ask the question, “What are we hiring the candle to do?”

Answer: Create light.

Asking that question, allowed others to invent the light bulb.  Unfortunately, the candle makers were not part of that innovation and their business was significantly effected.  Had the candle makers asked that question, maybe they would have invented the light bulb.

Example #2

Today if you go to a lawn mower producer and ask about what innovations they have you will get different responses.  Some of them might be: Developing a cleaner fuel engine, self-guided mowers, or mowers that run like the Roomba vacuum.

What if the lawn mower producers ask the question, “What are we hiring the lawn mower to do?”

Answer: Cut the grass because it keeps growing and we want our lawns to look nice.

So what if the grass didn’t grow?  There would be no need use a lawn mower and our lawns would still look great.  Well, scientist have already designed no mow grass.  (Links to articles here and here.)

The candle makers and lawn mower producers are focused on the product and not what the product is hired to do.  In one case, candle makers became a rare breed.  For lawn mower producers it is a matter of time.

The other significant thought David talked about was connecting the dots to create something innovative.  He referenced the phrase, “Connect the dots.”  When you connect the dots you have thought of something in a new or innovative way.  The more dots you have in your head the easier it will be to connect dots.  Dots in our head is information and learning.  If we continue to keep learning, it will be easier for us to eventually connect the dots.

The best time to connect the dots is between 10pm and 6am.  During our sleep.  At that time, our brain is accessing everything we have learned, read, been taught over the years trying to connect dots.  The brainstorming session is just the extraction of those connections you have already made.  That is why so many times when we are relaxing or sleeping “something just hits us.”

It was a very interesting presentation/discussion around innovation.  A new question to drive innovation.

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Posted on May 18, 2011, in Flip The Thinking, Innovation, Learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Matt,

    Very interesting. The candle-making example reminds me of something I heard about Henry Ford. Apparently he made a comment to the affect of: If I asked my customers what they wanted I would have made a faster buggy.

    This and the candle maker example almost seem to go against the mantra of meeting the customers every desire. Some of the greatest innovators have known what the customers want before the customers do.

    Asking “What is the purpose of the candle” helps to see what the customer wants even if they don’t yet realize they need electricity.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Chris

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