How to ask Creative Questions - #1

In the 1970s the computer industry was a fast-developing business sector, with new technologies and developments happening quicker than the world had seen before. Yet, as many readers will be aware, this industry was defined by a narrow-focus on what computers could be used for - focusing on academic data crunching and performing complicated calculations.

This context was shaped by the industry leaders, who made infamous statements such as IBM's president Thomas Watson saying, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.", and Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment Corporation boldly declaring, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." This was 1977.

Yet in 1977, two developers began asking different questions. Why would people want a computer in their home? What could a computer do to benefit the home-life of it's user? Why does our industry not focus on home-owners?

After asking questions such as these, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs launched the Apple II, redefining the computer, and introducing word-processing, computer games and graphic design to the ordinary user.

This highlights the importance of asking creative questions, that allow us to reframe the situation we are facing. Reframing allows us to observe what the real problem is - and we often discover that this problem is not the one that everyone is talking about! Reframing also allows us to discover new possibilities and solutions, as our focus is shifted in a new direction from it's previous entrenched position, allowing new links and ideas to be created.

© Niserin | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
© Niserin | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Question-asking is an art that takes a lifetime to master, but can be practiced by anyone. The right question asked at the right time can bring insight to an organisation, change the possible futures and inspire others in a new direction. In a nutshell, question-asking is the key tool for the creative leader.

There are many different types of questions that can be asked in different situations, but here's a sample of some that may be of use to you and your situation.

Sacred Questions

Sacred questions are ones that are never asked in an organisation, because they challenge the status quo and the way things have always been done. Asking these questions requires great courage and trust in the organisation, as the answers that may arise are not always answers that are desired.

Shell bravely asked sacred questions in their scenario planning exercises in the 1960s, including the question, "What happens if oil becomes unavailable and expensive? What does our organisation look like if our key product becomes unattainable?"

These deeply unnerving questions were asked and answered, which allowed Shell to respond to the 1973 oil crisis, when the price of oil increased five-fold in two weeks, in a much more effective way than their competitors.

Each organisation will have their own sacred questions waiting to be asked. These may include, "What will demand for our product look like in five years time?", "Why does our organisation fill senior positions externally, rather than through internal development models?" or "Why do do we have such high turn-over in lower-ranked positions?"

Probing Questions

Probing questions are used when you want to discover new possibilities about a product or service that is being offered. Many organisations spend too little time asking good questions about their product, and rush to market their product without fully understanding it. Further on, these organisations will often add developments to their product without ever asking questions of how their product is being used.

A healthy creative organisation will ask probing questions to further understand their product, revealing new layers of meaning and depth to their product.

For example, in 1924 Kleenex was introduced to the market as a make-up cleaning, disposable face-towel. In the late 1920s, the Kimberly-Clark organisation started to ask probing questions about Kleenex, and discovered that most consumers used it to blow their nose. In the early 1930s they changed their marketing campaign to re-brand Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief and saw Kleenex become one of the most recognisable brand-names in history.

Probing questions allow you to see that their is more to your product than just thin tissue paper. Learning to ask, "How is this product used?", "What needs does this product meet?", "What is the story behind this product?", "What improvements do our consumers desire?" will help you discover more about your product.

Asking any of these questions requires an intellectual openness to considering any answers - regardless of where they came from and what you believe about them. Creative question askers must learn the art of suspending judgement and begin to approach the world as a playful learner, full of questions, wonder and delight.

The next blog posting will focus on asking Absurd Questions, and a management technique for helping ask questions when problems arise.