At the Inner Circle in London last week, someone asserted that innovation is driven by questions. By knowing which questions to ask, and then engaging a diverse group of people to answer them.
For example, he said, if you find that your employees are not very good at sales, it doesn't necessarily follow that you should give them sales training. He told the story of a large company's CEO who asked for his help, saying he needed advice in how he could "grow sales." Our hero explained that was the wrong question. He asked the CEO whether he wanted these particular people to sell more...or whether he wanted to raise revenues. It is a subtle but crucial twist. What are these people like, he asked...the ones you want to turn into more effective salesmen (and they were all men). How do they behave in a meeting? Turned out all of them were accounting nerds, to use his language, and it wouldn't matter how much sales training you gave these guys, they would not be salesmen. Standing up in front of a room with clients was something they feared and with good reason: they were lousy at it.
So, he advised, do you really want to change their basic behavior (since that will never happen, but you could spend a lot of money trying) or do you want to leverage how they work with your clients? When the CEO realized there were more effective ways to showcase these guys in front of clients that would actually increase revenues, he got excited. So they worked with each of the accounting nerds to find their specialty, and how it fit with the client's needs and paired them with others who could close the deals in which the accountants got the clients interested.
It's true that many times the questions we ask can make all the difference in getting our companies headed in the most advantageous direction. We can go back to Henry Ford who said the problem with people in the buggy whip business was that they thought they simply made and sold buggy whips. If they had instead asked themselves what business they were in...and answered that they made and sold accessories for personal transportation, they may have realized they could make different kinds of accessories that would be grabbed up by people driving automobiles.
Similarly, the people who helped UPS greatly expand their business asked the question "What business are you in?" When UPS executives said they were in the package delivery business, the conversation that followed made them realize their real secret sauce was logistics. Once they saw themselves in the logistics business, they realized they had a much wider customer base, namely every company that had need for UPS's logistics skills, even if those companies never sent a package.
So, what business are you in? Should you consider including all your employees in the conversation? They may have insights about the business you are in that hadn't occurred to you.