Stop Asking For Ideas

May 25, 2011  

I recently gave a presentation on innovation for a company that sells travel packages online. The presenter who preceded me was the executive in charge of creating the technology that automatically sends follow-up e-mails to prospects who visited the site.

A few minutes into his presentation, he displayed a slide that showed the typical e-mail used in their follow-up campaign. The audience of 50 executives immediately shouted out ways of improving the e-mail. This went on for over 30 minutes. The problem was nearly all of the ideas had been tried before, were not practical, or were inappropriate.

Everyone in your organization will have an idea. They will have suggestions on how to improve the business. And they will have opinions on what to do differently. You don’t need more ideas.

Albert Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Unfortunately, most organizations are running around spending 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.

To accelerate your innovation efforts, you need to get better at solving challenges, which if implemented, will create massive value for the organization. It involves seeking solutions instead of suggestions. One of the greatest skills an organization can possess is the ability to ask the right question, the right way.

Asking the right question the right way means identifying the real opportunities for the organization. It also requires you to articulate the question in a way that increases the likelihood of the challenge being solved.

BP discovered that asking a question the “wrong way” can result in idea overload. After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well, they created an online suggestion box that encouraged concerned citizens to submit ideas on how to stop the flow of oil. They received nearly 123,000 submissions. On the surface, this might sound like a huge success. But out of all of these ideas, only a dozen or so were deemed as having any value. This means that 99.99 percent were duds. The amount of energy required to process this many bad ideas is massive.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

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2 Responses to “Stop Asking For Ideas”

  1. John Vincent Rider (@JohnVRider) on February 2nd, 2014 9:18 pm

    So how do we find that right question? How do we avoid creating 30 minutes of discussion on stale ideas or 123,000 ideas where we need only one right one?

  2. sshapiro on February 3rd, 2014 9:43 am

    John, great question…and it is the basis of a large portion of my work. It is hard to describe the process in a sound bite. But in general, the idea is to continually reframe questions until you know you have it “just right.” One tactic is to use what I call the “Goldilocks” principle. When framing a question, you want to make sure it is not too abstract (e.g., improve productivity, increase sales) but you also don’t want it to be so specific that it implies a particular solution or solution set; you want them just right. Just this one approach can help reduce the noise. In addition, I have identified 70 lenses for reframing that can help you zero in on the optimal question.

    This step is part of a larger process: ask the right challenges (innovate where you differentiate), the right way (don’t think outside the box, find a better box), to the right people (expertise is the enemy of innovation). With these three steps you focus on what is important, you reframe (and reframe) until the challenge is “just right” and then you need to determine who is best suited to find solutions (and it is not always the experts).

    I hope that helps. My books provide a lot more information on this process.