Stuck on a hard problem? The director of MIT’s Leadership Center says you might just need to reframe it.
Trace the origin story of any creative breakthrough and it is possible to find the point where someone changed the question. I have seen this as a longtime student of innovation; the stories in that realm abound.
For example, consider the origins of the snapshot. Photography had been invented well before 1854, when Kodak founder George Eastman was born, and he took an interest in it as a young man. But as he prepared to take an international trip at age 24, Eastman found it was too much of an undertaking to pack along the elaborate and expensive equipment. The technology for capturing photographic images had steadily improved over the years in terms of speed and quality, but the assumption remained that this was a process for professionals, or at least for serious and well-heeled enthusiasts. Eastman wondered: Could photography be made less cumbersome and easier for the average person to enjoy?
It was a promising enough question to motivate Eastman to dive into research mode, and exciting enough that he could recruit others to help. By age 26, he had launched a company, and eight years later, in 1888, the first Kodak camera came to market. Not only did it replace wet emulsion plates with new dry film technology, but it also featured what managers today call a “business model innovation.” There was no longer an expectation that customers would acquire the skills and the setup for developing the film. Instead, after shooting a whole roll of 100 pictures, they would send the compact camera back to the company for developing.
The Kodak was a smash hit, but Eastman’s question lived on. By 1900, he and his colleagues launched the Brownie, a $1 camera simple enough for a child to operate and durable enough for soldiers to take into the field.
Today, as I sit in the midst of MIT’s buzzing hive of innovators, I see plenty of people arriving at and articulating questions with the same power to excite the imagination and engage other clever people’s efforts. For the moment, I’ll name one: Jeff Karp. He’s a bioengineer in charge of a lab devoted to biomimicry. If that term is unfamiliar to you, let me suggest that the best way to understand it is with a question: How does nature solve this problem? Say the problem in question is the need for a bandage that will stay stuck to a wet spot, such as a heart, bladder, or lung that has just been operated on. In that case, what could be learned from slugs, snails, and sandcastle worms?
Sometimes the outcome of asking a different question is an immediate insight — a novel solution that has people slapping their foreheads at how obvious it should have been.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this particular question had never been posed — but once it was, scientists in Karp’s lab made rapid progress toward a product used widely today. As Karp puts it, nature offers an “encyclopedia of solutions” for those who think to consult it. “By exploring nature for new ideas,” he explains, “you uncover insights you would have otherwise missed by simply staying in the lab.”
Sometimes the outcome of asking a different question is an immediate insight — a novel solution that has people slapping their foreheads at how obvious it should have been. (I can imagine someone in the early days of magazines asking, “Why don’t we charge the subscribers next to nothing and take on advertising?” Or someone in a more recent decade asking, “Would we accomplish more if we stopped condemning alcoholism as a moral failing and instead treated it like a disease?”) It’s as though the new answer is so embedded in a question that you effectively unlock the answer as soon as you ask the question.
More often, discovering an answer takes time, but framing the question makes the pursuit possible. As with Eastman’s or Karp’s question, catalytic inquiry—a line of questioning that challenges past assumptions—opens up space for new lines of thinking; it recruits help, often from people trained in other disciplines; and it generates new appetite for the work.
It’s also important to note that while I tend to accentuate the positive as I talk about the power of questions — their ability to reveal opportunities and yield breakthrough ideas — they are just as powerful in helping people tackle negative threats.
One way to think about what a great question can do is to acknowledge the inherent danger in what “you don’t know you don’t know.” Imagine a simple diagram: a two-by-two matrix describing the state of your knowledge of a situation. One axis presents two possibilities: There are things that are important to your success that you know all about, and there are other things unknown to you. The other axis reflects how cognizant you are of those knowledge assets and gaps; that is, you may or may not be aware that there is a piece of information somewhere that you need to solve your problem. Thus, there are things you know you don’t know.
For example, if you are an army general, you might know that the enemy has a weapons cache, but you’re unsure about where it is. You know that you don’t know that. Far more troubling, though, are the things you don’t know you don’t know. These are things that have not even crossed your mind to ask. Donald Rumsfeld invoked this framework in a famous discussion of the Bush administration’s suspicion of weapons development in Iraq when he pointed out that the “unknown unknowns” often turn out to be one’s downfall.
Business strategists also recognize this as the realm from which business-destroying disruptions usually emerge. We can return to Kodak for a classic example. After a century of success, the company was decimated by something it didn’t know it didn’t know: how fast it would need to retool and reorganize in response to a sudden, large-scale consumer shift to digital photography.
Or, more recently, think of the taxicab industry, whose “unknown unknown” was the impact of thousands of ordinary car owners turning into ride providers through services like Uber and Lyft. Was this question even raised in a Yellow Cab management meeting as recently as five years ago? If so, it was not taken to heart. (The company, San Francisco’s largest traditional taxi firm, filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2016.)
You might say that such developments should have been foreseeable — and who could argue with that? After all, they were foreseen by the disruptive innovators who triggered the radical change. But for the people who were busy going about their business in the old mode, gaining the same insights would have required venturing into uncomfortable territory — beyond the usual realms of work where they knew they didn’t have all the answers to realms where they weren’t even asking the right questions.
In the face of positive opportunities, then, and also negative threats, my claim is that by revisiting the questions they are asking, and asking better ones, people arrive at dramatically better answers. In fact, I would push this to a bolder declaration that no dramatically better solution is possible without a better question. Without changing your questions, you cannot get beyond incremental progress along the same path you’ve been pursuing.