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Want innovative answers to complex problems? Ask “What?” not “Why?”

July 17, 2015

In his recent HBR article titled “Innovation Starts with the Heart, Not the Head,” leadership expert and Linkage faculty alumni Gary Hamel shares how the CEO of a healthcare company helped transform his entire organization by asking a simple question: “What would happen if our associates brought their hearts, as well as their professional skills, to work?”

He asked the question because the company had received low patient satisfaction scores and he was looking to find an innovative solution in spite of the fact that they didn’t have cash reserves for big investments in staff or patient amenities. He knew the answer had to come from within the organization and from each and every associate. The short answer is the scores went up when people started bringing their hearts to the job. Read the full article to see how they did it.

I love this story because of the question he asked. Many leaders attempt to solve a problem by asking why? “Why are we falling behind in sales? Why is our customer satisfaction score low? Why aren’t we meeting our diversity and inclusion goals? Why is our turnover so high?” While there may be good and legitimate answers to these “why?” questions (after all there is always a reason why), they are in essence, backward looking.

Conversations that come from asking why often become accusatory, blame seeking, and replete with conflicting data. These actions may remedy the status quo but do little to move the company forward and even less to promote innovation. Innovation doesn’t always require huge investments, months of market research, or an army of specialists. It does, however, require solving problems and providing value to customers and constituents.

The difference for this healthcare company was how the CEO simply asked, “What would happen if…” It’s the most powerful way to begin understanding the difference between the current state and some future state an organization wants to achieve. Asking “What would happen if…” moves the problem statement into a possibility orientation where multiple actions, from simple to complex, emerge. Everyone in the organization can answer the question. Each response offers a perspective that is unique and credible based upon how the respondent is situated.

“What would happen if…” questions take the respondent very quickly to a place of impact, a place different from where they are to where they could be. The question also incorporates the idea that the answer come from the individual first and not from best practices or another round of customer surveys. The answers reside within each individual.

Try this. Ask yourself a “What would happen if…”question. Fill in the blank in support of achieving an organizational objective. Always focus on results. Ask your closest work associate to do the same. Ask your direct reports, peers, and others to do the same. See the possibilities emerge?

Innovative solutions can be simple but not easy. Are you asking the right questions?

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