Attack problems with ‘killer questions’

Questions are the perfect basis for innovation: they get the brain chugging along on a journey that can lead to some interesting and unexpected places.

To really see things from a different perspective, Phil McKinney advocates asking ”killer questions.” McKinney has been asking them for years – he’s the President and CEO of CableLabs and the former VP and Chief Technology Officer of HP’s Personal Systems Group.

“Killer questions” push people beyond the obvious answers to get them thinking about what part of their process needs innovating. The key is to ask a series of questions, each revealing more and more insight.

For example, McKinney might start with, “Under what assumptions does your company or industry operate?” He allows them to reflect on the question, having them simply list what comes to mind. Then, he gradually layers on two more questions to get people thinking much more critically about what part of their process needs innovating.

The questions must be worded in a straightforward way, free of anything that will steer answers. This means taking factors like culture and geography into consideration.

When brainstorming at HP, McKinney says, the use of the word “product” always meant a piece of hardware to HP employees, rather than software or service. This language problem skewed the brainstorming data. A way to combat this is to be aware of and sensitive to company culture to avoid any discrepancies.

According to McKinney, every innovation process needs FIRE: focus, ideation, rank, and execution.

  • Focus: By defining a specific innovation focus, you end up with more targeted and better ideas.
  • Ideation: Use killer questions in order to come up with new innovative ideas from different perspectives.
  • Rank: Once ideas are generated, they need to be put in an order to determine the best ones to act on. A scoring system may help with this task.
  • Execution: McKinney says, “Ideas without execution are just a hobby.”

In McKinney’s experience, no one question leads to an “ah-ha!” moment. Ultimately, innovation is a process that takes much exploration, and adding a little FIRE may enhance it.

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