Successful innovators might have ‘toddler syndrome’

If you have ever spent more than three minutes with a toddler it is extremely likely that they will have asked you the short and sweet question, ‘Why?’

Toddlers are learning about their world, testing boundaries and have no fear or filters when asking questions (I recently overheard a toddler on a bus pointing at a well-built gentleman and asking their mum “Mummy why is that man so FAT?” Their mum was mortified, the other people on the bus found it hysterical and embarrassing in equal measure and the well-built gentlemen was apparently deaf).

Just to be clear toddler syndrome is not a licence to offend other people. Toddler syndrome is the fearless ability and energy to keep asking ‘Why?’. To challenge ‘the way things are done round here’, in order to continuously seek out a better or more effective way of doing things.

Have you ever got to the end of a project and thought, ‘If only we had asked them x’ or ‘I wish we’d thought about y’ or ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we had known z’.

I know I have.

Because we are up against deadlines and conflicting priorities it can be hard to take a step back and really think deeply about the best way to do an activity.

We don’t ask enough questions. Either because we are too busy, or we assume that our questions are not welcome or that we simply don’t have permission to ask.

Whatever your role, you can play a vital role in challenging the status quo and ask ‘Why?’ more to develop better customer relationships, better products and services and therefore better business results.

Often we can feel that we don’t know enough about a topic to ask meaningful questions. That is entirely the point. When we know less about a topic, we have a different perspective and it’s our different viewpoint that enables us to ask questions that people fully immersed in the topic are simply not able to ask.

Let me share an example from Southwest Airlines.

Some years ago Southwest Airlines ran a programme that included people from in-flight, ground, maintenance, and dispatch operations. For six months they met for 10 hours a week, brainstorming ideas to address the broad issue: ‘What are the highest-impact changes we can make to our aircraft operations?’

At the end of the six months the group presented 109 ideas to senior management, three of which involved sweeping operational changes. Chief Information Officer Tom Nealon said that the diversity of the people on the team was crucial, mentioning one director from the airline’s schedule planning division in particular. “He had almost a naive perspective, his questions were so fundamental they challenged the guys had worked on for the last 30 years.”

Southwest Airlines approach put them in the top 20 on the innovators index. Check out some of the innovations that they have implemented over the years here. 

So next time you are starting on a new project, don’t just accept the usual way of doing things.

  • Give people permission to challenge and ask ‘Why?’
  • Get a diverse group of people together with no experience of the topic to ask the ‘stupid questions’
  • Ask yourself ‘What would SouthWest Airlines do if they were working on this project?

Let me know how you get on and if you’d like some help challenging the status quo and asking ‘why?’ to get better results – then get in touch lucy@lucidity.org.uk.

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