What’s Your Question?

Asking the right question is essential in creative idea generation.

Diana Lillicrap 11.26.2012

Einstein was famously quoted for saying that if he had an hour to solve a problem that would save the world he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, and the last five minutes finding the solution. We’ve found this to be good advice when it comes to creative idea generation.

Don’t think too fast

It’s human nature to want to quickly jump to solving a problem. Most organizations spend a lot of time and energy trying to create a fast fix when an issue arises. But this approach often just masks a bigger problem.

Learning to ask better questions will lead to better ideas and stronger solutions.

For example, Toyota once asked employees for ideas on how to make the workplace more productive. Very few suggestions were submitted and they lacked new insight. The leadership then decided to ask the question in a different way: “How can we make your job easier?” Dozens of inspiring, practical, and specific suggestions were made, many of which were successfully implemented to improve efficiency.

Have your own problem?

To get to an effective solution, spend time rephrasing your issue before you start brainstorming ways to solve it. Look at the question from others’ perspectives. Try to come up with as many ways as you can to phrase it so it gets to all the specific issues.

In the case of Toyota, they could have asked the question in many other ways: “How can we reduce waste? If you owned this company, what would you do differently? What is the most efficient thing you do in your job? What do you do during the day that seems unnecessary?” And so on.

Explore the positive and negative sides of your question. Ask it in a specific way and a very broad way. Think about how your key audiences, top management, or even a stranger to your business might ask the question? Come up with 20 – 50 ways to ask the same question and then determine which one (or top few) really gets to the heart of the issue. Idea generation can then focus around those questions that are most relevant and likely to solve the real problem. You’ll find that getting to the real question may be harder than you think, but once you figure that part out, the answers will come easier than you expect.

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