Better Questions and Creative Breakthroughs

radical Briefing #0030

radical.briefing

Our friend Leyla Acaroglu has a wonderfully succinct way of capturing the difference between innovation and disruption. Incremental innovation essentially involves doing the same things a bit better. Breakthrough innovation means doing something genuinely new. Disruption means doing something new that renders old things obsolete.

Any organization or team hoping to break free of the diminishing returns model promised by scaling efficiency through incremental innovation has to learn to do new and different things. This is widely understood. So how do we learn to do new and different things? How can we build a foundation / practice / culture conducive to more genuinely creative (to say nothing of genuinely disruptive) innovation?

Glad you asked. Following Warren Berger’s argument, we believe that doing new and different things begins with a practice of asking new and different questions. Incremental innovation amounts to arriving at marginally improved answers to the same questions you’ve already been asking. And if breakthrough innovation and disruption both require coming up with radically different answers, it helps to start with a new and different question.

As Tina Seelig, a creativity and innovation researcher at Stanford has written, “Questions are the frames into which the answers fall.”

Our present moment of heightened uncertainty is a perfect time for exploring the relationship between the questions we ask and the answers we find and for learning to use today’s uncertainty (something we explored in Briefing #0026) as a springboard for tomorrow’s creative inquiry.

Years ago at Singularity University, we participated in a question generation workshop with Berger. Seelig, MIT’s Hal Gregersen, and the folks at the Right Question Institute all use relatively similar frameworks, and we’ve since developed a version of our own that has been tremendously useful in work with clients. The question generation workshop (kind of like an ideation session where — contrary to a classical brainstorm — you start by assuming that you DON’T already have the answers) is one of our favorite tools for engaging curiosity, opening a more inclusive conversation, challenging assumptions, and fostering more creative innovation.

Many variations exist, but the essential steps and flow are consistent and simple. The outcome is often unexpectedly rich, and the experience translates well to the virtual environment. These days, we typically use Zoom with Breakout Rooms and Google Docs for our workshops.

The basic facilitation is captured below step-by-step. We recommend that you allot about 90 minutes for the workshop.

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Step 0 (pre-workshop): Identify a Question Theme or Focus

Before convening your group, identify a theme or focus that will help your participants understand the scope of the workshop and focus their creative inquiry on an area relevant to current/future concerns and objectives. We’ve found it useful to frame the theme as a problem statement. E.g., Our leaders are struggling to engage and motivate teams in a digital work environment. This was actually the question theme we used for a recent workshop with our Learning Partner community.

Step 1: Generate Questions

Split your group into subgroups of 4-6, small enough so that everyone will be able to easily contribute and be heard. Ask each subgroup to designate a notetaker who will record all questions in a shared/collaborative document. If we know that there’s a particularly dominant voice in a subgroup, we sometimes like to volunteer that individual as the notetaker to keep them busy listening rather than doing all the talking.

Give the group at least 12 minutes (we recommend 15 - 20 ideally) to generate questions. They are simply to generate and record at this point. No discussion, no debate, no attempts to answer these compelling questions as they arise. Don’t be afraid to allot a generous block of time here: The richest questions are often asked after all of the obvious, expected questions have already been voiced.

Step 2: Refine Questions

Allow almost as much time for this step as the previous one (12 - 15 minutes) for the subgroups to revisit and refine questions. Make them more interesting, more focused, deeper, or richer. Consider opening any closed questions and vice versa. Begin to notice which questions feel most compelling or most important.

This is where the genius of collaboration emerges. We often find that our own questions are improved by a colleague’s tweak or slight reframe and that we might be able to similarly enrich questions that didn’t originally occur to us.

Step 3: Prioritize Questions

Give the subgroups 8 - 10 minutes to review their refined questions and identify their favorites. Ask each group to select 2 or 3 top questions and to choose a spokesperson who will share with the larger group in the next round.

We like to prioritize the questions that we feel most excited to discuss or debate at this point. One facilitator we know instructs participants to choose a most compelling question (“Which are you most eager to explore?”), a most urgent question (“Which is most important to explore immediately?”), and a most surprising question (“Which would have been least likely to cross your mind before today?”).

Step 4: Share Questions

In the large group setting, it’s finally time to share our richest questions (or those that Berger describes as beautiful – non-obvious, ambitious but actionable, perspective shifting, etc.). Allow each subgroup spokesperson a few moments to share aloud and to answer any requests from the larger group for clarification. Note reactions and any patterns that start to emerge among the collection of prioritized questions.

Step 5: Explore Questions

Be sure to keep the full lists of compiled questions for later review, but close the workshop with a discussion of next steps around the shared questions. Note the patterns that have emerged among favorites, and allow the group to comment on those questions that feel most compelling / rich / essential. Which questions will we begin to explore? How might we start to address and answer these questions? Who will own experiments to facilitate learning?

A successful workshop should generate a shortlist of rich, actionable questions that your group feels excited to explore, a longer list questions that may be less immediately useful but can still help leadership get a handle on the organizations known unknowns vs. unknown unknowns, and a collective taste for the role that questioning can play in building a practice of more creative innovation.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team


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