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Here at Traust, one of our core values is that “asking better questions is the key to innovation.” We believe that you rarely create truly innovative solutions if you just accept problems at face value. Rather, you must dig beneath the surface to discover compelling business needs and drive more relevant results.

Asking good questions is not an intuitive skill. We tend to think it must be, given the amount of time kids spend asking questions. It’s certainly true that children are better at the matter than adults. They aren’t afraid of looking silly just because they don’t already know something. Unfortunately, by the time we get to adolescence, we tend to have lost this ability. Between the fear of looking dumb and the belief that they already know everything, teenagers often don’t ask enough questions.

But even before that, kids aren’t necessarily asking really good questions. They normally tend to just ask “why” repeatedly. That’s a great start. I really can’t say enough good things about asking “why.” However, you can get to better innovation more quickly by broadening your questioning skills even further. Here are some of the techniques we use at Traust with our proven software development process.

1. Open and close your questions

If we get any training in asking questions, it’s often that we should focus on open-ended questions. (In case you’ve forgotten, open-ended questions are those without a yes-or-no answer.) But the opposite can also be true. As good as it is to ask “why” something might be, those questions often hold a lot of assumptions. If you change them to closed-ended questions, you challenge those built-in ideas. For example, a common assumption in business is that Millennials have a bad work ethic. Instead of asking why that’s so, ask “do Millennials have a bad work ethic?” Likewise, instead of asking “What new product features do our users want?” ask “Do users really want new product features?” The answers might surprise you.

2. Ask first, answer later

Just like in brainstorming, asking insightful questions often involves turning off your internal critic. The Right Question Institute (RQI) has developed an innovative technique for helping students learn by asking their own questions. In an RQI session, students are encouraged to develop a rapid-fire list of questions about the topic. Think of it as a sort of question-storming. Once they have their list, the students then decide which ones are truly worth answering. “Just when you think you know all that you need to know,” said one sixth grade participant, “you ask another question and discover how much more there is to learn.” We couldn’t agree more.

“The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions… Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.” — Peter Drucker

3. Add context

Questions — on their own — can often be confusing and ambiguous. And, despite our cultural myths, innovation rarely comes from lone geniuses working in isolation. You have to work with others to solve complex business problems. That’s why it’s important to explain why you’re asking your questions and how you will use the answers. Take some extra time to answer the who, when, why, and how of what you are really looking to learn. By adding this context for your questions, you open a portal to better understanding. Put simply, without context, you may gain new facts, but you’ll often end up learning very little.

4. Find analogies — “What is this like?”

In the story of his famous innovation, entrepreneur Reed Hastings was frustrated with the late fees on his video rental. He wondered why he couldn’t pay for renting videos with a monthly subscription, like his gym membership. That simple question led Hastings down the path to creating Netflix, which completely revolutionized the video rental industry. In this kind of analogical thinking, you compare two things to understand how they are alike. By thinking in analogies, you can shift your approach to a given problem and discover an innovative new solution.

Subscription models like Netflix have become a popular way to sell everything from razors to business software to religious inspiration. But thinking in analogies can be used for any aspect of a product or service. And since no article on innovation is complete without an Apple reference, here’s mine. When Apple entered the mobile phone market, they didn’t try to create better phone technology. Indeed, many engineers argued that the first iPhone had a lousy microphone and speaker. Nor did they just add more features to a regular flip phone. Instead, they asked themselves how to make a pocket-sized computer that just happened to make phone calls (among its many thousands of other applications).

5. Ask “What if…?” and “How might we…?”

Experts in design thinking will tell you it’s critical to know the current situation before trying to create something new. Ultimately, however, innovation doesn’t come from asking “What is…?” and “How do we…?” Instead, you must get beyond mere analysis — beyond asking “why?” — and challenge yourself to imagine a better future state. What if you weren’t limited to the current way of thinking about a problem? How might you achieve a future where two expected options weren’t mutually exclusive?

Don’t be afraid to ask yourself (and your team) questions to which you don’t know the answer. Doing so won’t make you look foolish (despite what your lawyer friends might tell you). Indeed, you cannot really create something innovative until you ask questions that don’t have an easy answer.

Need some help asking better questions about the state of your operations and the future of work? Looking for innovative ideas for helping your team be more productive and profitable? Schedule a call with one of our solutions architects to learn about creating business software tailored to your unique operations.

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