Every great innovative entrepreneur - from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs - has been good at one thing: asking questions. What if? Why? Why not? The seed for every innovation came from a question no one had been willing to ask, says Hal Gregersen, a professor of innovation at the global business graduate school INSEAD.
Gregersen learned the power of questions 20 years ago while teaching leadership at Brigham Young University. "My class became stuck on an issue, so as a random challenge, I asked them to come up with nothing but questions," he says. "The idea was to generate as many questions as possible without trying to find answers. And we discovered that there was power in finding the questions."
Gregersen, author of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Harvard Business Review: 2011), found that asking questions could prompt you down a different path. Since then, he's used the process - which he calls catalytic questioning - to help hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives find new perspectives.
An alternative to traditional brainstorming, catalytic questioning has five steps. Here's how you can incorporate this technique into your business:
1. Gather employees around a writing surface. Teams should assign one person to be the scribe, writing down questions on a white board or flip chart. If your team is virtual, use a shared Google Doc.
"It's very simplistic," Gregersen says.
2. Choose the right problem. For catalytic questioning to work, it's vital to select the correct issue to solve. Gregersen says the team should be invested on an emotional level, tapping into their hopes, dreams or vision. It should also have an intellectual component, a vexing or complex problem with no obvious decent solution.
The reason each team member cares doesn't have to be the same: "The group might tackle the issue not because they care about the issue itself, but because they care about helping the person the issue affects," he says.
3. Engage in pure question talk. Have the group start asking questions in a rapid-style fashion around the challenge at hand, with one person recording all of the questions. The questions should be about why the problem exists, what is causing the issue, or what is unknown about potential solutions.
"Most of us have a habit to give a preamble to a question - why we're asking it," says Gregersen. "Don't explain why, just ask the question."
He adds that leaders are prone to giving quick answers to questions. For now, set answers aside.
Set a target of 50 to 75 questions and get as many as possible. The process usually takes about 20 minutes.
4. Identify the "catalytic" questions. From the list of questions, identify the three or four that will disrupt the status quo if answered. Gregersen says these are often surprising or honest questions that evoke a deep level of emotion.
"They can be a gut-check test," he says. "Catalytic questions are the ones we don't know that we don't know. Companies get disrupted because they're not aware of these questions."
5. Find a solution. Once you've identified the questions that need to be answered, get out of the office and find solutions. Gregersen says asking questions without getting out of office might create clever questions, but they don't deliver solutions that are valuable.
He suggests observing and getting new data on the issue, networking and talking to others to get new perspective, or experimenting and trying something new to potentially answer question.
"That's when problems get solved in a positive way," he says.