The other day, I drove home from the supermarket so deeply lost in thought that I don’t remember the trip. Has this ever happened to you? If you’ve been driving for a while, and the trip to the supermarket is a routine occurrence, I am betting that it (or something very like it) has. Our brains are really efficient, and work hard to keep us alive. We move through life collecting bits of information and experience which get stored as knowledge. We draw on this knowledge to create habits that move us automatically through our days with a minimum of energy expended. So, I can drive myself safely home from the supermarket all the while thinking of something far more interesting.
The superpower of habit controls our lives, giving us an easy way to respond to situations by drawing on past experience. It works wonderfully well in routine activities, but it can be a major drawback when confronting novel situations—when old ways of thinking produce solutions that don’t work.
We are at a moment in time that is unprecedented for most of us, a pandemic that has changed how we work and how we live, and that is sure to challenge our traditions in the months and years to come. We will need new approaches to tackle the economic and personal problems that emerge. For example, what to do with commercial real estate space if companies allow employees to continue to work from home?
One of my favorite techniques is called “QuestionStorming,” which I read about in a book called The Innovator’s DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen.
In a traditional brainstorm session, a question is asked or a problem is presented, and everyone in the room throws out ideas and observations. All too often what comes out is a Frankenstein solution sewn together from those bits of knowledge. Nothing really new is created.
QuestionStorming is a process of digging deeply into a problem by having stakeholders participate in a session where only questions are asked, no solutions are presented. Prior to the meeting, participants are given the challenge or problem, and asked to write 50 questions to bring to the session. Each person presents their list, and others in the room help to refine the questions. The process leads people to think about what they don’t know, rather than provide an answer from a level of what they do know. By the end of the session, the group has whittled down the list to 10 or so of the best questions, which most likely require research before the next session.
One of the parts of the process that makes this so powerful is the fact that all participants get together to refine the questions. They leave the meeting with a set of questions that they have created together. This process works well to foster innovation in business, and I believe it could help us find common questions we can pursue as a society.
I am happy to have some habits, like driving home from the supermarket, to get me through the routine of my days. I am equally happy to have an ingenious process like QuestionStorming to help find innovative solutions to novel problems.