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Innovation is Easy… When You Know Why

Thought Leadership Tweet Book CoverToday’s post is by Dr. Liz Alexander, author of #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign (CLICK HERE to get your copy).  Here’s Liz…

When focused on a problem, how quickly do you launch into solution mode? Do you ever consider whether you’re answering the right question first?

Einstein once said that if he had an hour to solve a problem that his life depended on, he’d spend 55 minutes determining the right question to ask. Then, within 5 minutes, he’d have the answer.

Answers are one thing—but how about innovative advantage? Check out these examples to discover how powerful the right “why” questions can be:

Countdown in Bangalore

In a city of close to 8.5 million people driving almost 4 million vehicles, the installation of countdown timers at major junctions in Bangalore, India has helped minimize noise pollution and exhaust emissions, and reduce commuters’ consumption of gas. This simple device, like all successful innovations, relied on a good idea; what facilitated that was asking the right question.

As Bangalore mushroomed in size and vehicles increased, so the time that Bangalore drivers had to wait at red lights extended beyond the limits of their patience. Had city officials asked, “What can we do to alleviate our traffic problems?” they’d still be scratching their heads or have come up with the usual answers: build more roads, increase car taxes, or introduce some other punitive and unpopular measure.

Instead they focused on why drivers cause so much pollution (noise and emissions) when waiting at traffic lights. The real problem meant addressing the fact that drivers want to know how long they’ve to wait before the light turns green again. Once the countdown timer was introduced, most drivers began shutting off their engines until it was time for them to move again. Problem solved!

Dropbox Simple

How do you enter a market in which there is already considerable competition? Add more features and functionality to your product, right? Wrong! Or, rather, that’s not what propelled Dropbox to become the perceived brand leader in the free cloud storage market or boosted its number of registered users to 100 million since launching in September 2008.

Two years earlier, co-founder and CEO Drew Houston was stuck in a Boston train station wanting to work; except he’d forgotten his USB stick so couldn’t access his files. As he later explained to investors, he didn’t log onto one of the existing cloud storage startups because—even for a guy with a computer science degree—you pretty much needed one, given their complexity.

When Houston developed Dropbox, he did so with other users’ real problem in mind: why can’t I upload and store files in a way that’s simple, quick, and intuitive?

Doesn’t ignoring that need answer why so many tech companies can’t get people to use their products or become evangelists?

Wireless Phone Charging

We’ve all experienced it: the darned cell phone beeping to tell you it needs charging at the most inconvenient times. When this happened to Marin Soljacic in the middle of the night, he didn’t ask, “How can I find a phone with a longer charge life?” He thought about the real problem: why, with electricity available just a few feet away, wasn’t it possible to charge electronic devices wirelessly, similar to the way computers access Wi-Fi?

Soljacic’s “why not?” question—beloved of Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw, Robert F. Kennedy and others—has provided an answer that has the potential to transform all our lives. His company, WiTricity, is bringing us closer to a time when not only cell phones, iPads and laptops can charge themselves, but also electric cars and implanted medical devices like pacemakers. Which begs the question: why aren’t more entrepreneurs focusing on future products that don’t need batteries or wires that connect them to power sources?

Why Not You?

Preschoolers are said to ask an average of 100 questions a day. I’ll bet the majority of those begin with “why?” and inspire only frustration or silence from most adults. Not so inventor Edwin Herbert Land (a mentor of Steve Jobs) who, when his 3-year old daughter asked why she couldn’t immediately see the pictures he had taken of her, developed the Polaroid Land Camera that could reproduce an image in less than a minute.

Don’t get me started on how mainstream education is mostly designed to reward answers while failing to recognize that for success in the 21st century we need to get better at asking questions. Or the fact that most schoolwork exposes us to well-defined problems (the ones with definite right or wrong answers) rather than the ill-defined problems of real life!

As American author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” So here are three suggestions for how you might better discover the real problems before jumping into solution mode.

- Take time to imagine the solution you really want, regardless of how connected it is to the issue at hand. Then pose a question that addresses that, not the problem you’re currently faced with.

- Use the Five Whys exercise to get to the heart of a problem. Begin with the issue and ask “why?” Then, for every response ask “why?” related to that. By the time you’ve done this four or five times, you should have discovered where the real problem lies.

- Describe the issue to someone not connected to your business (grandparents are a wonderful, underutilized resource!) and listen to their reactions. Often they will point to the deeper issue at stake, that you just don’t see.

Dr. Liz Alexander- Dr. Liz Alexander’s 14th book is comprised almost entirely of questions. #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign is designed to ensure aspiring thought leaders consider all aspects of a successful thought leadership campaign before investing time, money, and effort. Dr. Liz is a business book strategist and consulting co-author who works with executives and consultants in the US and India, providing the questions (and solutions) to help them discover and communicate their unique thought leadership space. One of her favorite words is “why?”

4 Responses to “Innovation is Easy… When You Know Why”

  1. John Jolley says:

    Interesting post. Someone needs to “do a dropbox” on the common TV remote….

  2. Nick Little says:

    I use the Five Whys exercise as part of my class on supply chain quality management and improvement to get participants to understand root causes. I also think that the electronic age in which we live (think Google and Wikipedia in particular) is stifling the basic innovative skill known as “curiosity.” Young people seem to lack natural curiosity in everything and take what they come across on-line as the only answer.

    • Good to “meet” you here, Nick…it’s been a while!

      I agree that curiosity seems to be going out of fashion and that technology is exacerbating that for all but the watchful. I never take account of what Amazon (or any other sales site) “recommends” for me, preferring my reading material to be broadly drawn rather than reflect narrow interests –which these recommendations inevitably do.

      To which I might ask: why are we allowing computer algorithms to influence what we choose to read/watch/buy? By risking something that doesn’t suit us we’re often provoked to think more deeply (as exemplified by the individuals in my article)…which in turn helps to inspire new insights.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Glad to hear others are actively using the method. I think there’s another side to the electronic age though – I routinely look things up that I don’t know and Google and Wikipedia make me smarter when I do (albeit about stupid irrelevant things like why dogs stick their heads out of car windows, how water towers are built, and why pot roasts are tied up with that string when you cook it).

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