Why Ask Why?

Innovation often begins with a question. Disruptive innovators ask more questions than non-innovators—and their questions tend to be more provocative, according to an eight-year research project based on interviews with founders and CEOs of the world’s most innovative companies.

February 3 2012 by Hal Gregersen, Jeff Dyer and Clayton Christensen


Leader to Leader Institute’s Frances Hesselbein

“Any questions?”

Most people have heard that phrase hundreds, if not thousands of times. It often comes at the end of a presentation or meeting and yet most attendees shuffle away without posing a query. That’s unfortunate because innovation often begins with a question. In fact, disruptive innovators ask more questions than non-innovators—and their questions tend to be more provocative. That’s what we found in a recent eight-year research project based on interviews with founders and CEOs of the world’s most innovative companies (people like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com and Meg Whitman at eBay) and surveys of more than 5,000 executives and entrepreneurs from diverse industries and countries.

Our study unveiled five innovation skills (associational thinking, observing, idea networking, experimenting and questioning) that anyone, including CEOs, can use to discover disruptive new business models, products, services and processes. Of these five skills, we found that questioning often served as the starting point for disruption.

In fact, questioning is a way of life for innovators, not a trendy intellectual exercise. Our research found that not only do innovators ask more questions than non-innovators, they also ask more provocative ones. For instance, innovators who “strongly agreed” with survey statements such as, “I often ask questions that challenge the status quo,” produced twice as many successful new businesses than innovators who simply “agreed.” Among the different types of innovators we studied, product innovators relied most on questioning to deliver results, followed by start-up and corporate entrepreneurs and, finally, process innovators. (See “Who Asks the Most Provocative Questions?” below)

By asking lots of questions, A.G. Lafley (recent chairman of the board and CEO at Procter & Gamble) helped change the game at P&G. Lafley often began conversations with: “Who is your target consumer here? What does she want? What do you know about her? What kind of an experience does she really want? What does she think is missing today?” When working within categories, Lafley often asked, “How well do you understand the different segments of consumers—not so much what we know about them demographically, but psychographically? What do we know about their biggest desires that aren’t met today? What are they most unhappy about today?”

After searching for a deep understanding of what is, Lafley shifted lines of inquiry to powerful what-if questions to help deliver customer-centric innovations. For example, if talking to someone about science and technology, he asked: “What else is available in the world? Where else might we access what we need? Who across P&G—thinking across our business units or outside of P&G—could help us get what we need in the timeframe and cost structure that we want?” Most of all, Lafley was constantly hunting for counterintuitive questions. Instead of asking, “How can we help consumers get floors and toilets clean?” he would query, “How can we give consumers their Saturday mornings back?” He found the latter question far more fruitful for surfacing rich insights about what might be in order to develop new products and services that consumers would want to “hire” to get their jobs done at home.

How to Ask Disruptive Questions

Innovators’ provocative questions push boundaries, assumptions and borders. They leave few rocks unturned when cultivating the garden. Aaron Garrity, founder of XANGO, told us, “I am questioning, always questioning, with a revolutionary mindset.” During interviews with disruptive innovators, we noticed not only a high frequency of questions but a pattern as well. They started with a deep-sea-like exploration of what currently is and then rocketed to the skies for an equally compelling search for what might be. Focusing on what is, they asked lots of who, what, when, where and how questions (as world-class journalists or investigators do) to dig beneath the surface and truly “know the place for the first time” (as poet T. S. Eliot observed). They also invoke a series of what-caused questions to grasp the drivers behind why things are the way they are.

“To disrupt the territory, innovators puncture the status quo with why, why-not and what-if questions that uncover counterintuitive, surprising solutions.”

Collectively, these questions help describe the territory (physically, intellectually and emotionally) and provide a launching pad for the next line of inquiry. To disrupt the territory, innovators puncture the status quo with why, why-not and what-if questions that uncover counterintuitive, surprising solutions. Whether descriptive or disruptive, innovators perpetually invoke powerful questions to help see beneath the surface of everyday action and discover what’s never been.

Tactic #1: Ask “what is?” questions. In hot pursuit of what is, innovators inquire deeply for answers about what is happening right here and right now to gain understanding and empathy for others’ experiences. IDEO and other successful design firms employ diverse questions about the physical, intellectual and emotional terrain to obtain a rich three-dimensional view of how end users actually operate.

Intuit’s Scott Cook also does this by asking fundamental questions such as, “Where is the real problem?” What’s the person trying to achieve?” “What’s most important?” and ultimately, “What’s the real pain point?” Innovators like Cook know their questions work when they reveal what is and build empathy for how it feels. Such empathic understanding produces the deep understanding behind better what-caused and what-if questions.

Tactic #2: Ask “what caused?” questions. The next step in understanding the way things are is to ask causal questions to gain insights into why things are the way they are. To illustrate, Mike Collins, founder and CEO of the Big Idea Group (BIG), shared an example of how inventors hunt down the real job to be done by understanding better what is really going on in their world. One inventor had pitched a 15-minute card game to Collins and his team for potential development and distribution by BIG. Collins felt that the game, as presented by the inventor, wouldn’t crack a tough family-gaming market. But instead of turning the inventor away, Simon Cowell-style, he paused and asked, “What caused you to develop this game?” The inventor quickly replied by answering a series of implicit who, what, when, where and how questions: he had three children (who?) and little time after work (when?) to spend with them at home (where?). He wanted to have fun in the evening with his children (what?), but there was no time for games like Monopoly or Risk. He was in search of a 15-minute game (how?) that would do the job of connecting him with his children for a quick and enjoyable few minutes at the end of the day.

From Collins’s initial “what caused?” question, a series of answers to implicit who, what, when, where questions emerged that resulted in a successful line of “12 Minute Games” sold through Target. These games did the job many families needed at the end of a busy day or long week, and the insight to that job came by asking questions that gave simple, but critical insights into what was really going on in the inventor’s life.

Tactic #3: Ask “why?” and “why not?” questions. After describing the territory well enough to thoroughly understand what is, innovators started their search for new, potentially disruptive solutions by leveraging why and why-not questions to discover what might be. David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and Azul airlines, says that one of his strengths “is an ability to look at a process or a practice that has been in place for a long time and ask myself, ‘Why don’t they do it this other way?’”

In his most recent venture, a Brazilian airline named Azul, Neeleman asked his senior team, “Why aren’t more Brazilians taking advantage of Azul’s low fares?” Azul’s flights were cheaper than the competition’s, but his question surfaced the real challenge— getting price-sensitive customers to the airport. Then Neeleman asked, “How much does a cab cost for our typical customer to get to the airport?” The answer was “too much,” potentially 40 percent to 50 percent of the airline ticket cost. So Neeleman searched for lower-cost bus or train alternatives, but they were either nonexistent or too infrequent. This vacuum prompted him to then ask, “Why not start our own free bus service to get customers to the airports (to take advantage of Azul’s inexpensive fares)?” Today, passengers book over 3,000 bus rides per day to the airport with Azul, the fastest-growing airline in Brazil.

Tactic #4: Ask “what if” questions. At Hindustan Lever (Unilever’s business in India) executives wondered how to reach millions of potential consumers in small Indian villages where severe constraints existed: no retail distribution network, no advertising coverage and poor roads and transport. Collectively, these constraints challenged its existing business model and produced a fundamental question: How might we sell products in small villages without any access to traditional distribution networks, advertising or infrastructure?

The answer ultimately surfaced from direct-selling business models (from companies like Avon). In close partnership with nongovernmental organizations, banks and the government, Hindustan Lever recruited women in self-help groups across rural India to become direct-to-consumer sales distributors for its soaps and shampoos. The company also provided substantial training for them to succeed as micro-entrepreneurs. By 2009, the innovative solution in a highly constrained country context produced over 45,000 women entrepreneurs selling Hindustan Lever products to three million consumers in 100,000 villages.

Questioning as an Executive Innovation Turbocharger

Questions are critical catalysts to creative insights. And innovators were even more likely to successfully launch new ideas when they combined an ongoing instinct to formulate and ask the right questions with other innovator’s DNA skills. In other words, executives and entrepreneurs who ask questions as they observe the world, like anthropologists, discover more than those who don’t. Leaders who ask questions as they network with polar-opposite people (holding vastly different perspectives) discover more than those who don’t. Leaders who ask questions as they experiment and prototype discover more than those who don’t. Ultimately, questioning combined with the other innovator’s DNA skills can truly turbocharge innovation results—or you and your company.

Who Asks the Most Provocative Questions?

Innovators mostly on questioning to deliver results.

Who Asks the Most Provocative Questions?

Sample Questions: 1. Asks insightful “what if” questions that provoke exploration of new possibilities and frontiers.
2. Often asks questions that challenge the status quo.