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Leading Innovation: Asking The Right Questions at the Right Time
When faced with uncertainty, leaders cannot come up with the best solutions by themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing leaders to face the limitations of a command and control style of management. It has also brought sharply into focus the need for companies to have world-class innovation capabilities.
However, leaders may not be getting the innovation they need in the long run. How do we take the ideas created during the pandemic, inspire greater innovation and create sustainable business models that take organizations to the next level?
Tendayi Viki, Associate Partner at Strategyzer, says that the best companies already have the innovation muscle but face a challenge: how to ask the right questions at the right time in order to find new business ideas and create sustainable business models.
A Wicked Problem
Innovation is a Wicked Problem, a knotted ball of yarn that is very difficult to entangle. There are no linear questions with straight answers and asking those types of traditional questions will just get the answers you want to hear—not the answers you need. In Wicked Problems, there is no single best solution with a finite conclusion. Each path has unknown consequences.
Innovation requires leaders to create conditions where the winning ideas emerge. They cannot select the solution themselves. They must ask the right questions that:
- Inspire breakthrough ideas and business models, not create them themselves.
- Ensure progress toward value creation, not focus on the destination.
Design Like You are Right and Test Like You are Wrong
For true innovation, it is important for leaders to understand the distinction between design and testing:
- Design: This is the time to ideate and assess. As a leader, do not to try to answer the question “Will it work?” Rather ask “Is this idea crazy enough?” Design like you are right and everything is possible.
- Testing: Leaders should ask if the team is generating the right hypothesis. Then, push the team to experiment and learn. Test like you are wrong and find out where the idea breaks down.
Leaders often fall in love with the first idea and want to move from design to implementation. Instead, be prepared for multiple prototypes and be willing to destroy them in the testing phase.
Back2Better: Since nothing is normal right now, your teams have the perfect opportunity to think outside any boxes or restraints. Use this unique time to test crazy ideas.
Not Just Product but a Business Model
When designing, you must not only design the product but also a business model to sustain it. Leaders can facilitate this by asking questions in the testing phase about feasibility, desirability viability and adaptability. Don’t ask about roadmap and revenue. Instead, ask:
- What are the things that need to be true for this idea to work?
- What idea is true and do we need more evidence to back it up?
- What hypothesis should we test first?
- Should we reframe the way we look at a certain hypothesis?
Questions like these direct the team to think through the entire process.
Back2Better: Has the pandemic exposed weaknesses in business models? Allow new ideas to percolate and be willing to let go of models that can’t be sustained as you return Back2Better.
Not Just Product but a Business Model
Leaders must move away from scorecard thinking. Progress is a process. Leaders should be asking:
- Are we on the right track?
- Are we reducing the risk associated with this idea?
- What is the progress towards finding a business model that works?
- Should we invest more in this idea?
Clarify viability and accessibility. Risk reduction is critical and leaders and teams must be willing to retire ideas—even if they are a favorite idea.
Back2Better: Right now, everything feels at risk. But, this is the opportunity to ask if you are on the right track and decide where to invest for the future.
During the early stages of exploration, teams are given latitude to come up with crazy ideas. Leaders need to foster that environment. As the ideas are solidified and validated, leaders must ask:
- Is the project aligned to our strategic goals?
- Is the business model described in a way you understand, or do you need to know more?
- Is it clear, how much progress the team has made so far in testing their hypotheses?
- Has the team identified the right hypotheses to test next or are they missing something important?
- Will the experiments they are planning to run produce the kind of evidence that will allow for informed decisions later on?
- Is there a project team that is committed to driving the project forward?
- Has the team made a reasonable request in terms of budget and resources?
Like the early explorers, leaders ask their teams to find “what is out there” and bring back evidence of possible value. Being audacious and shooting for a new continent is critical. Explorers must identify the resources they found, how these resources could be utilized and a course back to the continent.
Back2Better: The wrong question to ask coming out of the pandemic is what outcomes will continue. The question to ask is how can we institutionalize the behaviors that helped us survive the crisis?
Leaders are used to asking definitive questions that teams feel compelled to answer. They want to “pick a winner.” When dealing with unknowns, it is better to ask questions that help innovative ideas to emerge. Ask if these ideas are breakthrough enough. Make multiple small bets and be willing to lose on most of them in order to find the right bet. Don’t ask questions limited to the bottom line. When you find the right bet, remember to make sure there is a model to make it successful that includes design, finance, tech, etc.
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