• Patrick Burge

Why asking good questions is the life blood of creating the best ideas in business

Updated: Oct 3


There is a debate around whether developing products and services in business is all about generating great ideas or executing good ideas really well. Obviously one would like to have both great ideas and great execution, but I think that asking good questions is the lifeblood of creating the best ideas in business, then building a process that focuses them on a specific group of customers for whom those products or services solve a big urgent problem.


Undeniably it is often the case that in business an idea is thought of more highly than the execution of that idea, or whether that idea is realistically possible to follow through on. I always love the thought of what Thomas Edison said about genius being one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.


But without the idea in the first place where are we?

Let’s look at the different kinds of thinking that are required for moving an idea from that ping of inspiration, the germ of the idea, through the process of the sequence of thoughts, and how you can move from the original concept to implementation. This is ideation.


For the purposes of this blog, I define ideation as a series of steps that identify and develop products or services that solve big enough and urgent enough problems for a group of specific customers who are willing to part with money for you to solve that problem.


So how do we solve these problems?


Firstly, we think. There are different ways of thinking, and some are more conducive to creating new ideas than others. When we ask questions of ourselves or others, we often use convergent thinking. This generally means the ability to give the correct answer to standard questions that do not require significant creativity. Most tasks and testing in school is culturally dominated by this type of thinking; thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be deduced by applying established rules and logical reasoning.


Divergent thinking is the antithesis of convergent thinking; a thought process where one explores many possible solutions. So, we can see when it comes to generating ideas, divergent thinking is the order of the day, but convergent thinking is our predominant mode of operation based on our schooling and day to day living.


It is no wonder that creativity is often stifled within people who are conventional academic achievers. One of the reasons more creative thinking is so uncomfortable for many of us is because we have a strong cultural bias toward convergent thinking. It is firmly embedded in our educational system in the way we teach, test and value student performance. And this pervades how we operate in the business world. A risk-averse culture is a significant factor in not generating a return from innovation investment in corporations across the world. As one client of ours says ‘the higher up the corporate innovation tree you look in our business, the less innovative we are.


As an example, I am working with a very interesting business in this field. The business is based on 4000 hours of research carried out twenty-five years ago by their founder, Andy Gilbert, into the success process that people naturally go through when people make a difference. The business, Go M.A.D. Thinking developed a thinking methodology and framework that has been used in over 40 countries by hundreds of large organisations in the private and public sectors to accelerate change.


It turns out that there are seven components to how successful people, those that make a difference, typically include in what they do. Andy’s TEDx talk is very engaging on the subject, but to simplify how to describe convergent and divergent thinking Andy and his team talk about asking good questions that either focus the mind or engage the imagination respectively. But asking great questions is very much central to the framework.


So, how can the two types of thinking apparently diametrically opposed to one another possibly help ideation?


A simple analogy that we can all relate to that helps us frame the challenge is to picture a box. With convergent thinking, we are very much inside the box. It is comfortable, familiar. We can be relaxed and assured. We feel safe. With convergent thinking, we have very much the opposite we are not inside the box. For most of us, divergent thinking puts us outside the box. We are uncomfortable, not relaxed and generally, we feel outside of our comfort zone.


The first thing to be aware of that helps our understanding is to think of the two different styles of thinking as existing on a continuum. So, it is important to recognise that convergent thinking and divergent thinking are part of the same process. The best outcomes for generating ideas will accept and engage both types of thinking fully.


If we accept this and know what we need to do to create great ideas then what is the problem?


As part of the Government-backed Reset Restart and Fit for Business Programmes that I help deliver, we run a webinar on ideation and discuss this in much more detail, but the problem starts when you engage in divergent thinking while in a convergent thinking mindset; we are engaged in convergent thinking we are thinking inside the box, working with received wisdom, the norms and the familiar. We are comfortable and in our comfort zone.


With divergent thinking, we have the opposite. We are thinking outside the box and it is uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable can lead to tension, which will inhibit creativity. What we need to do is get more comfortable with divergent thinking and to do this we need to grow and expand our minds, our capabilities. And to do this, two things are really useful. Having a framework, and like everything else in life, practising.


So, it seems logical that to improve ideation, we need to improve our divergent thinking.


Have a method and do the practice. Extraordinary people like Einstein, Serena Williams, George Washington Carver or Paula Radcliffe are not born with the abilities they have. It took many years of training and practice for them to develop their skills. The same applies to ordinary people. To all people.


Yes, we all have preferences and propensities. We often refer to these things as our passions. Each of us has inherent advantages over others for acquiring certain skills, but if you accept the premise that the major determining factor in skill acquisition is training and practice then it follows that anyone can improve divergent thinking and their ability to generate ideas.


So how do we improve divergent thinking?


Relaxation is key to getting the best performance out of ourselves in all sorts of settings. We can think of the sportsperson who in the critical moment tenses up and faulters. The same is true with our thinking. When we're not relaxed, in a conducive setting, or if we are stressed, or have tension, our thoughts do not flow.


For engaging in creating and generating ideas it is a good idea to practise relaxation techniques so that you can get into a relaxed state at will or with very little effort. We can also think about the environment and the time when we are most likely to be relaxed and at our most creative and go into idea generation mode at those times. In a business setting, where we are often in an environment where we might not be in our natural habitat, creating a conducive environment is even more important. Meeting ‘ice breakers’ or ‘warmups’ can be cringe-worthy but we need to develop a safe place where we can all get in the same frame of mind.


Then there is the importance of practice.


Another business I work with, The Negotiation Club, has created a whole business around practice being the most important component of becoming good at negotiation. And it is the same in almost all things in life. Great orators may have great ideas, but it is the practice that makes them perfect at communicating those ideas and creating change.


There are certain techniques that you can employ that are all well suited for engaging the mind in such a way as to develop your ability to think divergently. Our ideation webinar, delivered by my colleague Mark Dunwell, covers examples of tasks or exercises that you can do to help develop your divergent thinking capacities, such as mapping, journaling, meditation and dreaming. They can all play their part in terms of how you might improve divergent thinking and I would encourage you to explore other ideas and practices that may help you to improve your divergent thinking.


Once we have understood the concept of improving divergent thinking to complete the process for generating fruitful ideas, we need to combine convergent thinking and divergent thinking effectively, while remembering that trying to do both at the same time will not give us the best results.


In a business setting, asking yourself or your team a series of questions about the possibilities and engaging their minds in thinking expansively about a problem in advance of an ideas meeting often works well. Mark’s webinar offers some tips around the other steps you might incorporate to build a process and framework for ideation to change the ‘what if’ through to the ‘how can’ to the ‘we could’.


The seven key components that Andy Gilbert of Go M.A.D. Thinking undertook, identified what people who have made a difference normally incorporate; they have a reason why they are doing what they do, they have a clearly defined goal, they investigate possibilities and priorities, they involve others, they take personal responsibility, have self-belief, and finally, they take action while measuring results.


But above all else, asking great divergent questions, in a conducive environment is at the core of good ideation.


There you have it, simple isn’t it?


The problem is not always just about identifying a problem. It is really about digging deeper to identify a big enough problem that is worth solving for a specific group of people and then plotting the path to executing the solution in a way that they will pay for it.


In my next blog, we will look at how to do ideation that focuses on customers, to ensure that we get the most out of the ideas that we create, making sure we are creating the right ideas. Once we come up with ideas, we then have to bring them to life, so they are not just dreams. We will also look at what processes are needed to make sure ideas move beyond just thoughts. And finally, we will look at the importance of testing and validating ideas for business.


It may seem a little counterintuitive, but I think that creating great ideas is as much about the process as it is about the inspiration. In the ideation workshops we run, we focus on the customer, the types of problems they have and frame them in a way that one can explore the possibilities, but disappointingly for some of those brilliant idea generators out there, there has to be a large element of perspiration in your inspiration.


If you want to talk to anyone about any of this, give us a shout at Smorgasbord.




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