Why asking good questions is more important than having the right answers

Innovation is about thinking differently, asking good questions, and solving problems.

When I was eight years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16, I knew about Pythagoras theorem and when I was 21, I knew how Nylon was made.

Whilst flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career. I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all. My schools and Universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout education I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers, so over time I stopped.

Then when we start work, we’re given key performance indicators (KPI’s) and objectives. As adults working for an organisation, we’re measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown-up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right passing tests and ticking boxes.

So, it’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at delivering on innovation because it requires different thinking, asking good questions, throwing away the tick box check list and having courage to test something new. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age and let’s not underestimate the impact that our early years experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation requires asking good questions

Innovation isn’t about confirming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently, asking good questions, and solving problems. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovator’s experiences; of questioning the status quo, learning from the present and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

Another term that encompasses the principles of innovation is to have an ‘entrepreneurial mindset.’ Entrepreneurship is about creating something new that is of value to others, through trial and error. It’s for everyone. You can work in an organisation and be an ‘intrapreneur’ by bringing an entrepreneurial mindset approach to your job.

An entrepreneurial mindset is about creative problem solving, acting on ideas and not being afraid to fail and try again. An entrepreneurial mindset helps you build courage and resilience.

The world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again

The real-life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in ten year’s time. *One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

Right now we need our entrepreneurial mindset and our innovation and creativity skills more than ever before.

We’ve been forced to change radically over the last couple of years. We’ve adapted to working from home and adjusted into new roles and ways of working. Many of us have been unexpected teachers, adapting to teach our kids (and many kids have adapted to teach their parents)! We’ve stayed connected, and perhaps in one way have been even more connected while remaining socially distanced. Yet opportunities for informal conversations, coffee chats and water cooler moments which fuel inspiration and creative thinking have been limited.

We’re now adapting again as we emerge into something different. Most organisations I speak with are still working out what the future of work looks like, with a hybrid model of remote and office working. Most organisations acknowledge that it’s going to be a period of trial and error to figure out working practices that work for different individuals and the organisation.

Human beings are good at creativity, innovation and adapting, but we’re not used to having to adapt so quickly in a highly stressful situation and for a sustained period of time. The adrenalin needed to respond to a crisis exhausts us and we run out of steam. Gary Gower (a smart fox terrier) talks about it in his blog about getting past the 6-month wall.

When we’re stressed, anxious or out of steam our ability to think creatively is diminished.

When we feel stressed, it’s common to experience ‘brain fog’ – that feeling of not being able to think straight. When we’re out of steam we can lack the ability to focus or concentrate on anything properly. When we’re anxious we can make quick and ill thought through decisions or procrastinate so much that we do nothing at all.

This is because when we’re feeling stressed or anxious or faced with feelings of uncertainty our basic survival instincts kick in and our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This makes it very difficult to access the creative thinking parts of our brains needed to solve problems effectively.

We are all creative and according to research, to think creatively we simply need to be in a relaxed or playful mindset. That’s why many people have their best ideas in the shower, walking the dog or in the pub. Ideas flow when we’re relaxed.

There’s no relaxation or playfulness when we’re operating in fight, flight or freeze mode. So, in a crisis (like emerging from a global pandemic)  it can be hard to think creatively and solve problems, despite knowing that this is the time when we need these skills the most.

Being able to solve problems is a very important skill right now.

That’s one of the reasons I’m teaming up with Sawsan Khuri, innovation specialist and Helen Denny, founder at Not9to5 for an online networking event on developing your entrepreneurial mindset. We’ll be asking questions, learning how to improve problem-solving skills, understanding why being more curious is good for you and giving you practical tips to help you take action.

It’s on Thursday 16 September and you can buy your ticket here. Hope to see you there!

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