Innovation – Discover the Right Questions

Innovation - Discover the Right Questions“What’s the right answer?” is a question we hear all the time. In school we are expected to learn our material and spit out the “right” answer on demand. In business we are expected to look at historical precedents, what our competitors are doing and what we can afford, and provide the “right” answer.

Strangely, I often hear this when applied to innovation. What’s the right answer? When I hear this I know that the perspectives and intents are all wrong, and innovation will simply be another tool applied to find the right answer, instead of being applied to its true capabilities.

Far too often, the reasons that innovation “fails” are not tied up in the ideas that are generated, but in the questions that were posed and the rush to find the “right” answer. We in business are trained to find the one right answer very quickly, and have often failed to realize that innovation is often a voyage of discovery, to determine the correct opportunities and destinations rather than simply answer a question. Business cultures and attitudes have hammered into our heads the need to find the answer quickly, rather than explore for the best opportunity or outcome. We take for granted that the questions posed or the opportunities as framed are correct, and proceed to use innovation tools and techniques within an exceptionally limited framework, attempting to answer a question that is too limited and perhaps not even valid.

This isn’t our fault, really. We’ve been trained for years to accept the offered premise, which is that the question posed or the opportunity identified is the correct one. But far too frequently management’s ability to assert the right strategy or ask the right question seems less and less obvious, and innovation isn’t a technique or tool meant to answer one question as much as to explore a number of possibilities, and perhaps return with answer to a far different but more compelling question.

It’s not hard to tell whether or not an innovation effort will struggle. The roots of the failure lie in the original definition of the problem and the expectations inherent in the way the question is framed. In my experience many executives frame questions far too narrowly, missing many innovation opportunities, and place far too much pressure on obtaining the “right” answer to questions that were ineffectual to begin with.

Innovation should often be framed in two distinct phases: the discovery phase, where we take the given paradigm and extend it beyond where the thinking originated, and the action phase, where we start to generate and select ideas based on the opportunities or problems as framed in discovery. Far too often the discovery phase is taken as stated by an executive, with little or no investigation, with constraints and scope that are far too small to enable innovation to work.

Please remember that innovation is, first and foremost, an act of discovery, often of things you may not have intended to discover.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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No Comments

  1. Rocco Tarasi on June 6, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Taking the premise and phrasing it a little differently, finding the solutions isn’t the difficulty, it’s finding the right problems to solve that is hard. Entrepreneurs often assume they know what the problem is without really validating it first. The Instagram founders did an excellent talk on this at Stanford, cut down into a 3 minute video:

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