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Innovating with Questions

By Julian Mercer

Businesses and managers are under constant pressure to innovate to enhance their business, whether it’s through higher output, more revenue, greater efficiency, or improved service. New technologies and competitive pressures emerge regularly, driving a need to “keep up with the Jones.” But the pace of normal business operations often makes it difficult for managers and their teams to carve out time to focus on the process of innovation or even notice opportunities that may be out there, ripe for the picking.

One approach to that challenge is what I call “Innovating with Questions.” Rather than trying to carve out time for a meeting or retreat, the idea is to frame a question or series of questions that have strategic significance to your business and communicate them to your team. To make this work requires consistent management engagement. The old school “Suggestion Box” just won’t cut it. Make your innovation question a topic of conversation in one-on-one meetings, over lunch, and around the coffeemaker. Make good use of your digital collaboration tools.  Capture and recirculate the feedback you get, and ask questions to fertilize the “group think.”

If you’ve got a motivated team, they will have similar conversations and do the same. Soon, you’ll start to see individuals coalesce around and build upon popular ideas. You’ll also see some interesting fringe or “blue sky” outliers that may be difficult to assess. You can encourage this type of behavior by providing various incentives for successfully implemented ideas.

When the ideas start to jell, staff may self-generate proposals, which you can work on through an assessment and planning process. At that point, it may also make sense to hold a staff innovation retreat to try to flush out and prioritize the ideas and develop plans for next steps.

If you’re not a manager, but want to be one, asking yourself and engaging your colleagues with innovation questions is a great way to “manage up” and show your leadership potential. Or if you’re of an entrepreneurial mindset, innovation questions can help spark new business ideas.

So, what kind of questions am I talking about? First you have to ask what your goal is. Are you looking to make iterative or incremental improvements to an existing product or service? Or are you swinging for the fences in search of disruptive innovations that can transform or create new business? The first is a more measured inquiry, while the second requires questions that give greater runway for blue sky thinking. Both are valid approaches, but an iterative approach is probably more productive if you’re starting from scratch in building your innovation culture.

Iterative Questions

Here are ten questions designed to stimulate creativity around iterative improvements to existing products, services or business operations:

  • How can we enhance the user experience of our product/service to make it more intuitive, efficient or enjoyable for our customers?
  • Are there any emerging trends or technologies in our industry that we can leverage to improve our existing offering?
  • Can we break down our product/service into smaller components and optimize each one to enhance overall performance?
  • What features or aspects of our product/service do customers value the most, and how can we build upon or expand those features?
  • Are there any cost-effective modifications or updates we can make to our current processes to improve efficiency without compromising quality?
  • How can we use customer feedback and data analytics to identify areas for improvement and guide our iterative innovation efforts?
  • What are the key strengths of our competitors’ products/services, and how can we incorporate similar elements into our offering, while maintaining our unique value proposition?
  • Can we explore partnerships or collaborations with other companies to bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the table?
  • How might we adapt our existing product/service to cater to different customer segments or markets, creating new opportunities for growth?

Disruptive Questions

Here are ten questions that could be used to generate ideas with the potential for disruptive or blue-sky innovations. The goal is to challenge conventional perspectives and inspire the team to think beyond incremental improvements, to envision transformative solutions that could reshape the organization’s future.

  • What emerging technologies or trends have the potential to reshape our industry, and how can we leverage them to create entirely new and groundbreaking products or services?
  • If we were to start our business from scratch today, without any existing products or services, what innovative solutions would we develop to meet the current and future needs of our target audience?
  • How can we challenge the fundamental assumptions about our industry, business model or customer expectations to envision a radically different and more impactful offering?
  • What problems or pain points do our customers face that have yet to be adequately addressed by any existing products or services in the market?
  • If there were no constraints such as budget, technology limitations or regulatory barriers, what audacious and transformative ideas would we pursue to revolutionize our industry?
  • How can we reimagine the customer experience from end to end, introducing novel and disruptive ways of delivering value that set us apart from competitors?
  • What unconventional partnerships or collaborations could we explore to bring together diverse expertise and resources for the creation of groundbreaking products or services?
  • If we were to tap into the latest advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning or other cutting-edge technologies, how could we use them to pioneer innovative solutions that redefine our industry?
  • How might we leverage sustainability and environmental consciousness to create disruptive products or services that align with the growing demand for eco-friendly solutions?
  • What lessons can we learn from successful disruptive innovations in other industries, and how can we apply those principles to create similar breakthroughs in our own domain?

Concluding Notes

Take these questions as a starting point and develop your own framing questions that make the most sense for you and your business or operation. It’s better to put one question into play rather than ten, but it may be useful to cycle through questions in a timed sequence to encourage flexible thinking. I’d also encourage you to check out my article on “box thinking.” If you embody and foster an inquisitive mindset with your team, it will go a long way toward building a stronger innovation culture.

This is the second in a three-part series that looks at how managers can unlock innovation. The first part looked at how managers can build and sustain an innovation culture. The conclusion will offer tips on running a successful staff innovation retreat.


Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a retired executive, with more than 30 years’ experience in the technology sector as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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