The Killer Question Mentality

Kroger: A Case Study (Continued)

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One of the most interesting aspects of how Kroger uses the Killer Questions is that they’ve worked to implement a Killer Question mentality.

killer question

The employees understand that a Killer Question is about learning/seeing/considering something you wouldn’t have learned/seen/considered otherwise. They incorporate that mentality into their day-to-day observations, ideation, and innovation.

When Kroger does explicitly ask a Killer Question, they phrase them to reflect the realities of their business, which is that the company is very focused on profit and loss. They’ll also use questions more generally to get the team to think creatively. For instance, they’ll ask something like What is the #1 ranked country in personal and business freedom? This question works because our natural answer is “The United States, of course.” In fact, the United States is further down the list, and Hong Kong is currently first. This kind of revelation shakes up people who may have a comfortable sense that on some level, they are “at the top,” either as individuals or members of a business or industry. As soon as you can throw a core assumption into question, you open up people’s eyes to the fact that there are other assumptions that need to be shaken loose.

I believe in working quickly and creating and maintaining momentum throughout the innovation process, and the innovation team at Kroger has taken this idea to the extreme. They are responsible for generating ideas and innovations across the many different groups at Kroger. It’s demanding work, and they need to turn ideas around, fast. To help facilitate this, they’ve staffed their teams with people from all over the various groups and departments that make up the greater company. These team members know where innovation needs to happen, and ask for help in particular areas. Once a request has been placed—say, I need a solution for the front-end system of the store—the team quickly generates a concept and a mock up that’s presented to the relevant department. If it gets turned down, it is quickly shelved. If it is approved, they start using their own version of the gated funding system and get a little bit more money, time, and focus to evolve it further. The key here is that the innovation team is very busy, moves fast, and doesn’t spend a lot of time on tweaking ideas that didn’t get initial approval.

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I think the Kroger team has been especially innovative when it comes to execution. They realized early on that they couldn’t expect the established groups within the company at large to work with a single version of the gates used in the FIRE execution phase. These groups had been up and running for years, had ways of doing things, and knew exactly what goals an idea would have to hit in order for them to consider it worth pursuing. Each group had different priorities and a different way of doing things. It wasn’t the groups’ job to change; it was the innovation team’s job to meet the group’s needs instead. I love how the Kroger innovation team was able to acknowledge that and tweak the system to work within the dynamics of their company. They created a custom system of gated stages to match the needs and wants of whichever Kroger group would eventually own the innovation. This allowed those groups to quickly see the innovation as “theirs” rather than as something that is being forced on them from the outside. By adapting the innovation process to each department, the team reduced the risk of corporate antibodies trying to derail the ideas.

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The innovation team did a similar thing to the ranking process, customizing it to meet the needs of the various internal departments they were innovating for, rather than trying to force those departments to work to one unchanging set of ranking a killer question. Their ranking system is relatively freeform, and by handing over the power and sense of ownership they’ve once again found they have a greater chance of support from the core organization.

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