One of the first, and most lasting, pieces of career advice I received came from Linda Bush, my first project manager when I was a wee pup working at McKinsey & Company. “Ask a lot of questions,” Linda advised me. “You might think you are being annoying, but it’s the only way you learn. And trust me, people will tell you when you have crossed the line.”
There’s nothing quite like asking a good question. Bush’s advice helped me in those early days to learn about technical tasks (the magic of pivot tables in Excel), the seeming banalities of the working world (the mysterious expense report), and the subtle nuances of a profession (“Why did you say that then?”). Research by Hal Gregersen and Jeffrey Dyer in fact shows that questioning is one of the behaviors that successful innovators share.
So I’ll pose a question now: What questions should corporate innovators use to increase their odds of success? There are some classics out there, such as Peter Drucker’s (“If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?”), Ted Levitt’s timeless contribution (“What business are we really in?”), and the question Andy Grove asked to transform Intel (“If the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”).
Beyond those classics, consider using the following questions to help you crystalize the entire innovation process from beginning to end — by improving your ability to spot new growth opportunities, pinpoint disruptive threats, shape compelling offerings, and commercialize your ideas.
Identifying New Growth Opportunities
- What problem is the customer struggling to solve? Steve Jobs famously said it is not the customer’s job to know what he wants. I agree. It is the innovator’s job. One of the clearest signs of an opportunity for innovation is someone demonstrating that a problem is important to her by spending time or money trying to solve it and expressing frustration (either vocally or visibly) because existing solutions fall short.
- Which customers can’t participate in a market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions? A time-tested path to disruptive growth is to compete not against fierce competitors, but against what we call nonconsumption. Making it simpler, easier, and more affordable for people to do what they historically have been trying to do is a great way to create growth. Doing so for people who are locked out of a market is what made companies like eBay, Google, and Southwest Airlines the powerhouses they are today.
Identifying the Threat of Disruption
- Where are we overshooting the market by providing features that users don’t care about and don’t want to pay for? One of the central tenets of disruptive innovation is that companies innovate faster than people’s needs change. People will always take better products, but when they can’t use or don’t want to pay for the premium features, it creates opportunities for simpler, cheaper solutions.
Scott Anthony is the managing partner of Innosight.