Drawing from our most common frame of reference, the majority of us are likely to conjure up images of a paper cup and plastic lid, similar to the one that appears on the left. Or we may think of our morning rush and the cup of coffee that helps us navigate through it as in the photo below. When Jonathan Brillant envisioned a to-go coffee cup and its accoutrements, quite different images came to his mind as the photos below document. Why was Brillant able to imagine the possibilities surrounding a coffee cup and its accoutrements so differently? While it is true that he is a visual artist who may be more naturally inclined to see broader possibilities— these are photos from his exhibit To Weave. To Stack. To Stain.—it may also be true that he was answering a slightly different question. For example, had I asked us to “Imagine what we could create with to-go coffee cups and their accoutrements,” most likely we would have come up with very different images. This was indeed more of the question Brillant was answering. He writes that in this work he set out to “assume the role of a British artist who gathers materials in his natural environment and uses them to execute a site-specific installation.” In this case, the natural environment was the coffee shop and his materials were the to-go cup and its accoutrements. What is the takeaway from this exercise? How we ask questions matters. It can lead to very different outcomes. Tina Seelig, who teaches creativity and innovation at the d.school at Stanford University, has studied how reframing questions can unlock the imagination and create fresh solutions. In her book InGenius she illustrates how different the range of possible solutions can be by simple altering the way a question is asked. As an example, Seelig asks, “Which of the questions below is more thought-provoking?”
- What is the sum of 5 plus 5?
- What two numbers add up to 10?
Seelig points out that the first question has only one answer. The second has a vast range of possibilities, especially when we consider fractions and negative numbers.
What does the shape of questions have to do with marketing? In a market that thrives on innovation, where even our best ideas are often rapidly commoditized, marketers are continually looking for new insights and expressions that can enhance their customer experience. To be successful, as marketers we must be able to push beyond our initial impressions, responses, and entrenched points of view to see situations with fresh eyes. Scott Bedbury, a former marketing executive at Nike and Starbucks, sums up the task quite succinctly: “Show up stupid. Be forever curious.” This is great advice. While it is helpful to be aware of how things have always been done, we cannot let our efforts be limited by the past. Unfortunately, many of us do not know how to think more expansively. Joi Ito, who directs the MIT Media Lab, observes that corporate leaders often do not have the skills necessary for effective questioning. Indeed, many of the Lab’s clients comment that they “came here looking for questions I didn’t know how to ask.”
How can we enhance our ability to ask questions? As Seelig’s example suggests, one proven way to interject fresh ideas is to reframe the questions we ask ourselves and ask again. Similarly, in his book Think Better, creativity consultant Tim Hurson encourages people to liberally apply the word, else: “How else might we solve this problem? Who else might be involved? What else haven’t we thought of yet?” In his experience, the best ideas generally come after plenty of responses have been generated—30 or 40 minimum— when people hit the “we-are-dry” stage. Up to that point most ideas are regurgitations of existing solutions.
Roger Firestien, President of Innovation Resources and author of several books on creativity including Leading on the Creative Edge, encourages us to use the phrase “How might we?” This phrase can be especially helpful when we discussing our concerns about new ideas. For example, rather than saying, “I think that idea would be too expensive to develop,” Firestien suggests that we reframe that concern as a problem statement: “How might we reduce the cost?” or “How might we raise money for that project?” This slight shift in language can have a big impact on outcome. It can keep us focused on addressing the concern rather than killing a potentially great idea that needs to be more fully developed.
Perhaps something as routine as a morning cup of coffee or tea can serve as a reminder to be intentional about reframing questions. When we think we’ve got it, if we slow down long enough to reconsider the question, just one more time, it may ensure that the rest of our day is focused on the real issue and opportunity.
-Larry Weber and Lisa Leslie Henderson