To make the kinds of changes that can really push a business forward, leaders need to ask themselves a series of transformational questions. Only then, will growth-driving innovation take place.
Innovation is a white-hot topic these days—particularly the big, transformational variety of innovation that’s capable of igniting new markets and new businesses, rather than simply riffing on what’s already out there. So I’m often asked what the secret sauce is that allows us, or anyone else for that matter, to consistently get to the big answers—those disruptive, market-making innovation ideas that others couldn’t see.
The answer I offer is that they’re asking the wrong question.
The fundamental truth about the pursuit of growth-driving transformational innovation is that the likelihood of an innovation project landing on transformational answers pivots almost entirely on whether it starts with transformational questions.
Transformation questions are the innovator’s killer app. They can re-frame the way we think about and engage the marketplace, change the way we view the lives and challenges of our customers, and open new strategic innovation vectors that our competitors—still focusing on the same old questions everyone in the category has been asking for years—will neither see nor act on.
Here are six ways to get to transformational questions on your own innovation initiatives, and to the bigger answers they will open up.
The only way to get to transformational questions is to purposefully chase them, and this starts with assuming that transformation is necessary rather than an option. This shift changes the conversation in the team from “Should we transform something?” to “What will we transform?”
Consciously try to identify things in your category, consumer experience, products, and business that just are the way they are without needing to really be that way. In most businesses, you’ll find a long list of them, and hidden inside you’ll discover relevant transformational questions. Some examples: In an age of personalization, when there is such tremendous breadth in consumers’ financial means and trajectories, why do mortgages come in only 15- and 30-year increments? And when less than 15 percent of the population finds full-strength spirits palatable, why is 98 percent of the category sold in a way that requires compensatory behavior? For inspiration, just look how far architect Frank Gehry was propelled by simply questioning the need for walls and rooflines to be straight.
Knowledge is a potent form of competitive advantage. But there is often a razor-thin line between a knowledge base and the entrenched paradigms that have been attached to it over time. Understand that knowledge is power in certain moments in the journey, but kryptonite in others if not properly harnessed.
Literally picture yourself sitting in the room with a similarly chartered project team at your key competitor’s office. If you can readily imagine them working around similar questions, you probably haven’t cracked the transformational questions you’ll need to get to transformational answers. The point is not to second-guess what your rivals are up to, but simply to gauge your own conviction that you’ve uncovered big new questions. Big thinkers find big questions exciting. So if you don’t viscerally feel that you’ve broken new ground, you probably haven’t.
Finding big transformational questions usually happens by distancing ourselves from the prevailing category context we live in every day and approaching it from a fresh angle. This doesn’t just work metaphorically, it works literally too. Looking at your ice-cream business not through the eyes of the consumer seeking indulgence, but from the perspective of the product behind the frosted freezer glass watching consumers go by, like an orphan hoping for adoption, may open a powerful new set of questions to ignite transformational innovation. If that doesn’t work, deconstruct the life cycle of an ice crystal born in the churn at the factory, or ask what the spoon would say as it’s bent in the act of scooping.
Paradigm-creep isn’t just a company phenomenon. It happens to consumers too. They often become so accustomed to embedded characteristics and compromises that they don’t even think or talk about them. (When was the last time you got to work and said “Boy, how about that gravity today?”) The great innovator needs to ask at every touchpoint—what didn’t we hear that was interesting. In the pursuit of transformational questions, the unsaid is often the most telling thing.
In the end, if you crack transformational questions, those transformational answers and the new competitive advantages they create will come into view a lot more quickly a lot more often.
Asking why your walls need to be straight may be just the thing to steepen your growth curve. And that’s unquestionably a great thing.