Golden Rules of Innovation Workshops: Killer Questions

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Rule #1: Set a focus.

The first critical error David and his group made was failing to focus their attempt to generate ideas. As we’ve defined in the FIRE method, focus is essential in order to give people a targeted, specific area of investigation. Pick one aspect of your industry or organization, and decide whether you want to look at What you’re selling, Who you’re selling to, or How your business is operating. Use Killer Questions to help you isolate areas where you might be missing opportunities to innovate.

Killer Questions

This strategy serves two purposes. First, participants given a focused topic are compelled to go deeper than they would on a general one. Many people make the mistake of thinking that by giving a group free rein to think about any aspect of the business, they will actually create a greater number of ideas. It’s not the case. Second, focus not only produces better ideas, it also reduces anxiety. The workshop is not a “snipe hunt” for ideas, it is simply a safe and open forum for them.

Killer QuestionsI asked David to put forward one focused area of inquiry that would be useful to explore in detail. He thought for a minute and suggested that they should look at the changes that would affect their customers in the future. Or how their business needed to evolve to take advantage of the changing ways their competitors distribute their products. He added, “I’m curious about whether our distribution methods are going to be able to move fast enough in the future.” All of these potential areas of focus fall into different Who, What, or How categories, but all are equally relevant to David’s business. At some point in the future, he should attack all of them, but for now it’s simply enough to pick one and proceed.

Rule #2: Assign two Killer Questions as homework.

It’s critical to ask your group a set of well-written questions that will force them to look beyond the obvious. Simply suggesting an area of focus and asking for ideas will get you nowhere. It’s too vague and too open to interpretation and preexisting biases. Let’s say that our group decided to focus on the issue of how their customers’ needs might evolve over the next five years. There are at least four or five Killer Questions that could be applicable, but giving your group that many options will overcomplicate your session. (Remember, this isn’t a one-time-only activity; if more questions come up, you can hold additional workshops to address them.) Choose the two Killer Questions that seem most relevant to your particular situation. In this situation I’d go with:

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Two weeks prior to the workshop, send out these Killer Questions to your participants. Explain that you are looking very specifically for observations and ideas based around these questions. Be clear that you are assigning them homework, and this homework requires getting out in the field and observing.

Rule #3: Encourage investigation.

The participants in David’s group are busy people. They work all day, and then go out to industry events in the evening. On weekends, they sit at home reviewing projects that they don’t have time to get to during the workweek. Sound familiar? David’s original e-mailed question was so broad that it allowed all of them to apply it to aspects of their business that they already had opinions and knowledge about. His team “knew” how their customers felt about their product, and didn’t feel they needed to get out in the field and actually investigate whether their beliefs were still accurate. The ideas they generated reflected this.

Rule #4: Don’t filter.

We all have assumptions, and yours will kick in the moment you pick the Killer Questions and start thinking about your homework. Be aware of the biases that are going to pop up in your head. When you hear yourself think something like, “I know how to answer this question,” stop. The whole point of this exercise is to force yourself to go outside of the old rules, so be aware when you default back to your safe and comfortable assumptions.

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Rule #5: Set a schedule for generating ideas—and stick to it.

Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do the idea generation when you have time, because odds are it won’t get done. If you are working by yourself, set aside fifteen or thirty minutes a day to focus on ideation. Organizing a workshop for a group serves the same purpose. Don’t allow the session to go on for hours and hours, because you’ll lose energy. Keep the time limited, and stay on point. Discussing the two Killer Questions should take about two hours. There’s a reason for managing and limiting the time: You don’t want to have to end the brainstorming workshop the moment the group has generated and collected the ideas—that’s just phase one.

Think of your typical brainstorming session. What happens three or four hours into the actual process of generating ideas? Odds are, the energy and momentum you had in the first couple of hours is flagging. If you allocate a reasonable amount of time to generate and go over the ideas, you’ll keep people fresh and engaged for the second half of the process, ranking.

Rule #6: Ranking isn’t a dirty word.

Don’t create lists just for the sake of it, because then you lack the focus about which ideas to go after. Always rank them; doing so is critical to a successful workshop. The whole purpose of the innovation workshop process, particularly when you get through the ranking and you start the execution, is this: You want everybody in the room to say, “You know something? These are the absolute best ideas we came up with today.”

So, end your group at a point where all the participants can walk out of the room knowing that they have collectively selected the best idea applicable to the Killer Questions you asked them. This is key; you need that sense of accomplishment, and you need people to feel that the process is ongoing. You need your group to be invested in the idea and to be enthusiastic champions of it as it gets pushed forward.

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