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“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.” Antony Jay, writer, broadcaster and director

One of the hardest parts of innovation is figuring out where you need to innovate, and the areas that need it the most. Everybody on a product team has their own ideas of ways in which the product can be better and the best ways to implement updates or fixes. But everybody approaches the issue through their own lens. Here’s a look at some typical departmental lenses:

  • Sales: The last deal they lost.
  • Support: Recent customer problems.
  • Implementation: Go live faster.
  • Marketing: What the competition is doing.
  • R&D: Interesting to work on.
  • Finance: Cost to develop.
  • Training: The questions/concerns customers have.

The worst thing is when everybody thinks they know what’s wrong with a new idea. “We already tried that and it didn’t work” is a perennial favorite. “Too expensive,” is another. There’s no shortage of viewpoints, and almost everyone can articulate reasons why all the other viewpoints are wrong. And they’re all probably right, in one way or another. But is that considered innovation?

Asking the Right Questions Doesn’t Always Garner Innovative Results

If by some chance the team agrees on the right question (or questions) to ask—the right problem to solve—you can be certain it’s not innovation. If everybody sees the need for something, it’s not innovation, it’s table stakes—because all your competitors are most likely already doing whatever it takes to achieve a solution.

Just because an idea isn’t innovative doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the things people suggest. You should. Just don’t pat yourselves on the back for being innovators. As Antony Jay said in the quote above, it’s easy to spot the wrong answer. If it was easy to figure out what to do next, innovation would not be such a highly prized commodity.

Innovation Often Comes from the Questions Nobody has Asked Yet

Think of Steve Jobs inventing the iPad. It’s hard to believe that the ubiquitous device made its debut in April of 2010. That said, in just ten short years, it’s become indispensable to millions of people, and spawned countless imitators. But before trying it, who knew they needed an iPad? Only Steve Jobs, one of the all-time great innovators. He asked the question nobody else had thought of yet.

Before Joseph Orlicky of IBM came up with the concept of material requirements planning (MRP), who knew manufacturers needed a system to calculate net-demand? Weren’t reorder points and safety stock good enough? Yes, they were, until he invented the netting algorithm. The pace of manufacturing took off, paving the way for reduced costs, increased efficiency and global supply chains. He asked the right question to change the face of manufacturing forever.

When Taiichi Ohno thought of delivering inventory exactly when and where it’s needed, he too, was asking a question nobody else had thought to ask. Before Just-in-Time (JIT), having a lot of inventory—called Just-in-Case—was a good thing. But what if manufacturers didn’t have to store, protect or count inventory?

Reaching Beyond Existing Solutions to Innovate

Innovation isn’t necessarily the result of asking the right questions. It’s the result of asking the “what-if…” and “could we…” questions instead of the straightforward and easy ones.

Product teams and committees typically look for answers to questions everybody already knows. What’s the best way to solve this problem? Real innovators say, “What question haven’t we—or our customers—asked yet?” Once they hit on the question, they solve it. So, to qualify as innovation, it’s important to focus on the real question (or questions) at hand, especially those not yet raised, and not sift through a stack of current solutions.