From a young age, we are conditioned to give answers, not to arrive at solutions by asking questions. Because we carry those habits with us into the business world, many companies remain wedded to archaic ways of thinking, stifling innovation and breeding complacency. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and senior lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has built on years’ worth of research, analysis and consulting to the world’s most innovative companies to produce a methodology for brainstorming questions rather than answers. This revolutionary way of encouraging innovation re-connects us with a lost human power: the power (and instinct) of inquiry.
Gregersen’s new cover article for Harvard Business Review, “Better Brainstorming: Focus on Questions, Not Answers, for Breakthrough Insights,” samples his eagerly awaited book, “Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life” (Harper Collins, Fall 2018).
Gregersen, who has dedicated his career to finding out why certain people and companies become cutting-edge innovators, while others do not, writes, “Great innovators have always known that the key to unlocking a better answer is to ask a better question that challenges deeply held assumptions. Yet most people don’t do that – even when brainstorming – because it doesn’t come naturally. As a result, they tend to feel stuck in their search for fresh ideas.” To this end, Gregersen has devised a three-step methodology for inquiry that has been successfully implemented by his clients, including Chanel, Danone, Disney, Ernst & Young, Fidelity, Genentech and Salesforce.
With his framework, problems are looked at from different angles, and creative solutions inevitably flow. The result is a company culture that habitually looks for innovative breakthroughs, and gives employees a sense of control over their own idea-generating process. After studying leading innovators up close and personally, Gregersen concludes, “At companies like Amazon, ASOS, Patagonia, IDEO, Pixar and Tesla, people often come together to tackle challenges by asking one another tough questions – in hallways, lunchrooms or even conference rooms.”
Gregersen has both learned from and taught many of the largest firms in the world, and his article, upcoming book, and big ideas on building innovative cultures can help companies join the ranks of the most cutting-edge in their industries.