On a vacation in 1943 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edwin Land took a picture of his young daughter. When she asked if she could see the photo immediately he, of course, said no, he had to take the film to be developed. He then asked himself something along the lines of “why not?” “Why can’t someone invent a way to take pictures that you could see right away?”
As you probably have surmised this was the very beginning of what became known as the Polaroid Land Camera, an invention that changed photography forever. In fact, the company he started had tremendous success, so much so, it was placed it on what was known as the Nifty-fifty, a group of high-flying growth companies that dominated trading on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1960s.
In his highly readable work entitled A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger points out that it’s not just asking questions that leads to innovation; it’s asking the right kinds of questions. What kind are those? The ones that Edwin Land’s daughter asked; namely, open questions.
Open questions are ones that begin with Why? What if? How? Asking questions like this compels the person to really think hard about the nature of the answer. Closed questions, on the other hand, the ones that begin with How many? How much? How fast? don’t do much to spur innovation. They lead to “just the facts” answers, the kind that legendary, and fictional, detective Sargeant Joe Friday would ask each week on Dragnet, a long-running TV crime show that took place in Los Angeles.
Theodore Kinni, writing in strategy + business, opines that closed questions “support the status quo.” In other words, asking how you can make better, faster, and cheaper widgets assumes that you should be making widgets.” An open question would be one where you would ask why are we in the business of making widgets at all.
Open questions act as a catalyst for innovation. They are, Kinni writes, potential game changers. Here’s how he breaks them down.
“Why?” questions are potential game changers. For example, rather than ask how can we make widgets faster ask why are we in the business of making widgets at all?
“What if?” questions are the beginning of finding solutions to problems, or, capitalizing on opportunities. They prompt blue sky thinking.
“How?” questions “get down to brass tacks.” For example, how would you put a darkroom in a camera so that you could see the picture immediately.
Berger’s book explores how one can create a “culture of inquiry” leading to greater organizational innovation by asking these three questions.
Try this: in your next project team meeting, have one question each that begins with Why?, What if?, and How? I think you’ll see the conversation is richer and prompts deeper thinking among the team members. Remember, better thinking leads to better results.
btw: for those who want a trip down memory lane, here’s the trailer for the Dragnet series. It’s a classic!