When was the last time you asked a question in a meeting? Was that question one that pushed the edge of the status quo? Were you brave enough to pull back the curtain, look under the rock, and ask a simple, basic question about a strategy? Were you concerned that your curiosity might make you look troublesome, disrespectful, or foolish?

The Innovator’s DNA is all about how to be curious in an obedient, hierarchical environment. One of the book’s authors, Jeff Dyer, recently spoke to my team at Adobe, explaining why asking “Why?” is an important skill.

Dyer believes that asking questions creates solutions that are unique, powerful, and provocative. Questioning the status quo digs to the heart of the matter, leading to discovery, invention, and solution. No autopilot. No assumptions. No limits. It is a way of life for innovators, employing curiosity to open the door to new and exciting discoveries.

Equally important, and perhaps even more challenging, is finding the right questions to ask. As Dyer notes, great answers to the wrong questions can be perilous if they follow an inconsequential line. Additionally, it is important for leaders to instill confidence and certainty about an organization’s path. Questioning the status quo could at times appear uncooperative or disrespectful. Dyer suggests forming a supportive inner circle of key people that work well with the questioning process to provide thoughtful feedback, broad insight, and the right questions.

Dyer lists strategies to help those in leadership positions become productively curious, tracking the paths between “what is” and “what might be.” The list is simple:

  1. Ask “what is.”
  2. Ask “what caused this.”
  3. Ask “why”, or “why not.”
  4. Ask “what if.”
  5. Engage in “question storming,” brainstorming that only asks questions about a problem.
  6. Nurture question thinking, turning statements regarding challenges into questions.

Consider Steve Jobs when he returned to Apple, driving his team with the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” You know the rest of the story. What you may not know is that while Jobs was active on the board of Disney, he prompted Magic Kingdom employees in similar fashion, asking, “What would Tinker Bell do?” Point is, there should be no limits on questioning. You’ve heard it before. There are no dumb questions.

Where to begin? I have found that questions of constraint, both broadly and narrowly interpreting the task at hand, put everyone on the same page to jumpstart innovative thinking:

  • What is our objective?
  • What is the most effective way to do this?
  • What is the most efficient way to do this?
  • How do others do this?
  • How can we do this better?
  • Should we adopt existing best practices or innovate our own?

The skill of questioning brings to mind one absolutely stellar employee who stood head and shoulders above the rest on efficiency. Dutifully taking up the banner, this employee consistently performed exceptionally well. Rarely one to issue questions, she finally did ask one, wondering why her peers were being promoted and she was not. I was surprised by the request, as her past behavior did not exhibit the drive or desire to move up. Her constant agreement with me firmly planted her as a follower, not a leader.

I suggested that if she would begin to show the ability to think for herself, show her curiosity, ask a few questions, and exhibit that valuable managerial skill set of critical thinking, I would love to promote her. Until she did so, I could not recommend her for a management position.

Yes, it’s that important. Table stakes required to join the managerial game. I believe it’s also important to our Adobe CEO, Shantanu Narayen. He asks better questions than anyone I have ever known. If he’s asking questions, encouraging employees to be curious, dramatically shortening the learning curve, we should too.

Whether your question creates ripples, waves, or tsunamis, the disruptive questioning process is one that requires courage. It is sometimes uncomfortable, but truly rewarding if it inspires everyone to think critically and arrive at innovative solutions. As I close this article, I can’t help wondering, what will you be curious about today?

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