A big insurance company I know of wants to design a radical new future, so they have committed significant resources to large-scale innovation. But as the board and executive committee are learning, embracing innovation means starting to ask a whole new set of questions.
Here are three toxic questions that you probably ask that are guaranteed to kill innovation:
“What is the return on investment on this project?” This question scares innovation team and forces them to tell lies. They simply cannot answer it because it’s way too early to know what the ROI will be. So they either make up an answer and stretch the truth, or they throw buckets of speculative financial data at the question and hope no one notices that they aren’t answering it.
“Can you prove your case and back it up with hard data?” Ask this question of an innovation team, and they will put all their energy into the wrong areas. They will try hard to extrapolate numbers from market trends and past experience, rather than thinking about customers, good ideas, and new paradigms.
“Are you meeting your milestones?” This question will force an innovation team to abandon anything controversial and go back to the concrete world that they already know. They might get something done, but it won’t be innovative. Milestones suit a construction project where you know what you are going to build, but they are inappropriate for an innovation or learning project.
As a board member or executive committee member, you aren’t necessarily trying to kill innovation. It’s just that innovation runs counter to so many of the standard tests and processes that make businesses (and executives) successful. It’s hard to accept that innovation requires exploring unknown territory via a winding road – you cannot see around the next corner. You have to be comfortable with “We’re not sure yet.”
Fortunately, there are some great alternative questions can you ask both to give you insight into what your innovators and doing and to help them feel comfortable and thrive. Try these:
“What hard and soft capabilities are you beginning to build by doing this? Innovators will be developing new capabilities along the way. These could be soft: the team could learn how to be more comfortable with ambiguity, how to gather better customer insights, or how to develop a fruitful alliance with a business partner. But they could also be hard, technical capabilities, such as developing new technology around social media. These capabilities don’t yield any immediate financial benefits, but they will later on. And you will have them even if the direct benefits of the project “fail.”
“What value are you creating for stakeholders?” Money only comes from people buying stuff. And people like to buy stuff from happy employees – especially in service industries. Long before a business case starts to crystallize, asking this question can help you see whether the project is creating value for your people and for your customers.
“What are you learning?” Whenever innovators try something new, they discover things along the way about what works and doesn’t. They could be learning how to visualize complex information, or how to collaborate more effectively. They might not win over a market segment with their invention – but they will have gained invaluable insights.
Asking these alternative questions creates energy in your innovators because you are inviting them to think. But these questions also convey the feeling that you care. As you move to these broader questions, you will be abandoning command-and-control for a more inspiring form of leadership.
What are the most toxic questions in your organisation? The most energising?