The Right Questions

IdeaConnection Interview with Shawn Coyne Co-author of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas
By Vern Burkhardt
"While the lessons and ideas spawned by others who came before you may not solve your entire problem, they can certainly give you a substantial jump-start on it by being the source of great questions that help you focus your thinking." Brainsteering, page 36

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Given that traditional brainstorming has such a poor track record because, as you say, it is inefficient, ineffective, and usually fails, why has it persisted as a popular ideation technique for more than 50 years?

photo of Shawn CoyneShawn Coyne: Brainstorming has persisted as long, and been used as much, as it has because in many cases it's the only technique people are aware of. It's also the only technique that has gained broad, popular acceptance over the years. Whether it's taught to you in a business school class or you experience it for the first time in a corporate setting, it's something that everybody has seen, and it feels easy.

People tend to assume that because everybody uses it, and because it seems so easy, it must be the best solution. But as you know from having read our book, Brainsteering, and from all the academic research that's been reported over the years, it isn't very effective at all. It's too unstructured, and the typical brainstorming session doesn't spend enough time on any specific topic. It's also worth noting that ever since Alex Osborne, the accepted founder of brainstorming, wrote Your Creative Power in the 1950s many people have actually misapplied the principles he described. Although some of what he said has proven to be invalid over the years, some of what he said is still valid today.

VB: It seems people are ignoring the research about the questionable effectiveness of brainstorming.

Shawn Coyne: Exactly. In part it's because the research has been published in the academic world, where most people haven't been exposed to it, but the results of the research are clear – and most people's own experience is consistent with the findings of the academic research. For example, as we've talked to people about brainstorming over the years, and especially since our book came out, we've constantly heard people report negative experiences with brainstorming. We hear, "Yup, I've certainly used it – and it's almost always been frustrating."

Of course, once in a while a great idea does come out of a brainstorming session – just like, once in a while, you can catch lightening in a bottle – but most of the time people say brainstorming frustrates the heck out of them.

VB: In Brainsteering, you admonish the use of many professional 'creativity moderators'. Can you think of any circumstances when such an outsider could effectively lead a group in generating highly creative and useful ideas?

Shawn Coyne: Oh yes, there are definitely instances when an outside moderator can effectively lead a group – hey, we ourselves moderate brainsteering workshops all the time with great success!

Our negative comments refer to certain kinds of outside moderators, based on our experience and feedback we've heard from others over the years. The problem is there are lots of moderators who only come at things with a relatively uncreative and unproductive traditional approach, like brainstorming. Many also think that their knowledge of the process of brainstorming is all they need to bring to the party in order to be an effective moderator, and that they don't need to know anything about their client's business. In some cases, they may even think it would hurt them to know a lot about the client's business, because somehow that would constrain the client from 'thinking outside the box'.

There are actually plenty of good moderators. The good ones are those who have a well-structured process (whether it's brainsteering or any of the many other processes people use), and then enhance their process by taking the time to get to know their client's situation well enough to apply their process in a focused way. Anyone who tries to do a traditional brainstorming session, absolutely cold, with no knowledge of their client's line of business or the current situation their client is facing, is thinking too shallowly and wasting their client's time and money.

So we're not against moderators in general – moderators can add a tremendous amount of value. We're just against bad moderators!

VB: Does it surprise you that anyone could have the confidence to go into a company and lead an ideation session without having an in-depth knowledge of the company and its major business challenges?

Shawn Coyne: In a sense it's funny, but it's also sad to see. It's amazing to think that some people get paid considerable amounts of money to do just that. Presumably they must have a lot of charisma and give a great sales pitch.

To me, it's unthinkable to go into a client cold and say, "OK, I have the perfect answer for how you can generate great ideas," without ever getting to know the client's organization or its business.

VB: Is being provocative good for stimulating thinking?

Shawn Coyne: Being provocative is great, as long as you're being constructively provocative. My brother and co-author, Kevin, and I tell people all the time that being constructively provocative doesn't mean being loud or obnoxious or disagreeable. It means doing something that will cause people to think of their problem in a different way than they've ever thought about it before. Why? Because if you keep thinking of your problem the same way you have in the past, you're likely to come up with the same solutions you've come up with in the past.

So we focus on finding ways to help spark original thinking among our clients. In our case, we try to get people to 'Ask The Right Questions' – questions that will get people to snap out of their traditional patterns of thinking and look at their problem from a different angle or a different perspective than they have in the past.

VB: What led you to coin the term "brainsteering"?

Shawn Coyne: Brainsteering was a word we invented after doing a lot of research, including looking at about 3,000 different words in the dictionary. We were looking for something catchy that would build off the term 'brainstorming' (since that's the most popular ideation technique), but would also point out the key difference between brainstorming and the new approach that we were recommending.

We thought of a great analogy to illustrate the difference we were seeking to highlight. We said, 'The key flaw with brainstorming is actually hiding right there in the name. Brainstorming is a bit like a lightning storm. There's a tremendous amount of energy involved, but only rarely does it result in anything that's truly productive. But what if we could take all that creative energy and steer it in a more consistently productive direction by adding just the right amount of structure to the process to help them focus their thinking?'

So that's where the term 'brainsteering' came from. We wanted it to be a play on words with 'brainstorming' that would also clearly point out the key difference between traditional brainstorming and our new technique.

VB: How does a brainsteering workshop differ from a brainstorming session, and why does it work better?

Shawn Coyne: It differs in a lot of ways – in philosophy, in the general approach, and in the specific mechanics.

In philosophy, it's different because it's not intended to be totally free-form. We don't encourage people to just 'think outside the box!' with 'no constraints!' because research shows that when people try to do this, their mind doesn't know where to focus and they become frustrated. Instead, we try to help people focus their thinking by explicitly acknowledging certain legitimate constraints, and by laying out their ideation objectives as specifically as possible.

Once we help clients determine their precise objectives, we help them look at their problem in a different way than they have in the past using the 'Right Questions' approach which I referred to earlier, and that I'm sure we'll talk about in much more detail later.

Last but not least, we then structure the logistics of the brainsteering workshop itself to be very different from a typical brainstorming session.

For example, instead of inviting 20 random people and putting all of them in a room at the same time and encouraging them to cross-talk non-stop for 2 hours, we advise people to think of their specific objectives, then think of the specific Right Questions they're going to be asking, and only then select which people they're going to invite to the brainsteering workshop. Don't merely invite the usual suspects, such as those who have a vice-president's title of some kind. Think about the questions you're trying to answer, and then invite the people who are best equipped to answer those questions! It might include a vice-president, but it might also include a scientist from your product development laboratory, or a guy who works at the delivery dock, or one of your salespeople, or your receptionist.

Once you've selected your participants, don't bring all 20 of them together and let them randomly toss out ideas for a couple of hours. Divide them up into smaller subgroups of 3-5 people, then have each of these subgroups work on a different 'Right Question' and stick with that question for 30 minutes before switching to the next one. In this way, you're able to multiply the number of topics you're investigating, and work on each topic long enough to get past initial, mediocre ideas to develop truly great ideas.

Why do we recommend subgroups of 3-5 people? It's the magic number to generate productive discussions. You see, in a large group of 20 people, most people sit quietly out of respect for the others, or because they're intimidated about speaking in front of a large group. But in a small group of 3-5 people, everybody is willing and able to speak up. In fact, they feel obligated to speak up, because in a group that small, if you're not speaking it seems like you're not carrying your weight.

So there are a number of things, from philosophy to structure, which make a brainsteering workshop completely different from a traditional brainstorming session, and that help it generate much better results.

VB: What are the reasons brainsteering sessions generate better ideas, and that sparks often fly?

Shawn Coyne: First, when you settle on the objectives up front, you automatically increase the odds that people will succeed.

One of the big problems with traditional brainstorming sessions is that, a lot of times, the objectives aren't made very clear. You might have some people in the group who think the objective is to find the big home-run idea that will redefine the business for the next generation, whereas other people in the same group assume the objective is to identify something that will raise profits by 5% in the next quarter. When this happens, the initial ideas people come up with are often so completely different that people have no way of relating to each other and building on each other's ideas. In fact, people often become insecure. They're thinking, 'Wow, if he's bringing up an idea like that, which is so different from anything I had in mind, maybe I misunderstood our objective. Maybe I'll just keep my mouth shut so that I don't embarrass myself.'

On the other hand, if you get the objectives clear upfront – such as, 'today we're going for home-run ideas' or 'today we're going for bunts, singles and doubles' – then you're at an advantage from the get-go.

Second, as we discussed a few minutes ago, the fact you've divided people up into smaller groups helps increase their productivity because everyone can get a word in edge-wise. And what's more, because there are 4 or 5 subgroup sessions running simultaneously, there are 4 or 5 times as many opportunities for one of those groups to come up with a great idea.

VB: You've said that brainsteering 'leverages the way human beings think and work in creative problem-solving solutions.' How so?

Shawn Coyne: Most human beings think best when they have a specific objective in mind and a very clear understanding of the constraints they're facing.

When the human mind is presented with a problem with no specific objective and no constraints, it can feel like a pinball machine where there is so much activity going on simultaneously that the machine just goes 'tilt.' Your mind bounces randomly off the walls. You don't know whether or not you should stick with a certain train of thought, or a specific idea, and refine it further, or switch to a whole different train of thought or idea. Before long, your mind gets overwhelmed.

The great thing about brainsteering is, because the objectives are clear upfront, the Right Questions focus your thinking, and you know what the constraints are, your mind can move around more comfortably and think up plenty of ideas without getting overloaded.

VB: I gather that, in a typical brainstorming session, the human brain tends to go back to its previous patterns of thought and substantially generate the same old ideas.

Shawn Coyne: Exactly, you tend to get the same sort of answers over and over.

I'll give you a specific example. A typical question at a brainstorming session would be to ask the whole group of 20, 'How can we improve profits'? While that's a laudable objective (because one of the core goals of a business is obviously to make a profit), the question has probably been asked a million times in the past, and it's also unclear. Does it mean 'increase profits in the next 3 months' or 'over the next 10 years?' Does it mean 'primarily by generating more revenues' or 'by saving costs?' If it's to be 'by generating more revenues', does it mean 'by attracting new customers' or 'by increasing business among our current customers?' There are so many branches you can go down, your mind explodes.

But if you took the same group of 20 people and broke them up into 5 groups of 4 people, and then gave each group a much more specific variation of this question, their thinking would be much more focused. For example, you could ask, 'What's the biggest hassle our customers currently put up with and how can we improve revenues by removing this hassle?' This is a question that people who really know the business can focus on, and then come up with a whole set of ideas.

Meanwhile, you can give one of the other 5 groups in this same session a cost-focused question that would also help raise profits. For example, you could say, 'What situations exist in our business where 90% of time things run smoothly and take up only 10% of our resources, but 10% of the time they run so poorly they take up 90% of our resources? Let's identify 10 of those poor situations and figure out how to make at least 3 of them go away.'

You can imagine three other questions that could be given to the other three groups, all of them focused on various avenues for increasing profits.

Once you've got each group focused on a specific question, make them stick with that question for 30 minutes. It makes all the difference in ensuring you'll obtain creative, original, and useful ideas.

Even in the smaller, highly focused subgroups, what tends to happen at the outset is the same thing that happens in a brainstorming session with a larger group. In the first 5 minutes, people are kind of bumbling along as they try to get started. The first ideas generated are likely the same ones that have been identified previously, and they're probably mediocre ideas. In a brainstorming session, frustration would start to set in, so people would just pop off to a different idea, and then another, and then another, never getting any traction.

In a brainsteering workshop, because you force people to take a specific question and stay with it for 30 minutes, what happens is, after the initial 5 minutes of bumbling around, the small group starts to have dialogue something like this: 'Wait a minute. Your idea wouldn't work for this reason or in this situation, but if we could fix that reason or make it work in a different situation, we might well be onto something useful.' So people start to build off each other's ideas.

One of the theories with traditional brainstorming is that building on each other's ideas should occur. However, this often doesn't happen in a group of 20 people, because there is too much cross-talk going on. When you're doing it in small groups of 3 to 5 people for 30 minutes rather than switching randomly from topic to topic every 30 seconds, you allow the full potential of group interaction to come to bear.

VB: Why are subgroups of no fewer than 3 and no more than 5 the ideal size for developing answers to a question?

Shawn Coyne: In part this conclusion was based on a review of academic literature, but it was also based on our 14 years of experience doing these workshops with many different types of people.

If you have fewer than 3 people, you don't get enough cross-talk and cross-pollination of ideas. If it's only one person, this person can be productive in generating ideas, but without a partner they can only carry things so far. If there are two people, this helps, but what frequently happens is one person tends to become dominant and the other the listener.

As soon as you add a third person, you can get a true conversation going, and even if any one of the 3 isn't speaking a lot, the other two keep the conversation going. The third will be listening, and can offer ideas at any time during the conversation. Having 3, 4, or 5 people creates this phenomenon, and it works well.

However, as the group gets larger than 5, you get a countervailing effect. The larger the group gets, the more likely it is to splinter into sub-conversations, or for one or more members to lay back and not actively participate. They may feel they are either not getting enough airtime or they don't have to carry their weight in the dialogue because others are actively participating. For example, if you have a group of 6 or 7 people, within 5 minutes the group starts to morph into 2 sub-groups of 3 and 3, or 3 and 4. In effect, they're having two parallel conversations. So we've concluded that the magic number is between 3 and 5 people.

VB: When you have large groups splintering off into sub-conversations the participants are not listening to each other.

Shawn Coyne: Exactly. You de-facto have a 3-person group and a 4-person group, even though you officially have a group of 7. Because the two groups are talking about the same question at the same table, some individuals overhear and are distracted by the conversation in the other group. So it's much less productive than if you set them up as a 3-group at one table and a 4-group at another, and give them two different questions to think about.

VB: Having two or more subgroups at the same table must create a lot of confusion because you cannot multi-task; the brain can only listen to or think about one thing at a time.

Shawn Coyne: Exactly. Multi-tasking is a fraud. What is occurring is sequential single-tasking.

There are certain simple activities where the brain can switch between activities fairly easily, but when you're trying to do something complicated like think up new ideas, the switching cost of changing subjects from one to the other is quite substantial. If you're constantly 'multi-tasking' by switching back and forth between complex mental activities, you're wasting much of your productivity.

VB: This mental cost is detrimental to creativity, to creative thinking.

Shawn Coyne: As Einstein would say, creativity requires a certain amount of inspiration, but also a lot of perspiration. Staying on task and not getting distracted is critical to moving from bad to mediocre ideas, from mediocre to good ideas, and from good to great ideas.

cover of BrainsteeringVB: Do you recommend whenever possible not including 'Idea Crushers' in a brainsteering workshop, or can they sometimes add value?

Shawn Coyne: Sometimes they can add value, but you have to be careful how you use them.

There are certain types of idea crushers who gained this status precisely because they are talented. People defer to the expert in a category of knowledge. I might defer to my boss because, in most cases, he or she didn't get to be the boss by being a bozo. So there are certain types of idea crushers who, if used appropriately, have the potential to add a lot of value to the group.

But you have to be careful. By virtue of having the status of being the recognized expert or the boss, they can unintentionally crush discussion in a group because the others, even in a small group of 3 to 5, may shut down. They think, 'Gosh, he's the expert. Nothing I can say is going to live up to what he says, so I'm going to be quiet.' In this case you've wasted the potential value of the others in the group.

There are other types of idea crushers who are idea crushers just by dint of personality – they're just obnoxious loud-mouths. They are never going to add value. They are the ones you don't want to invite to a brainsteering session.

What we recommend is, if they are value-adding idea crushers, consider putting them together in the same group. They won't be intimidated by each other – one VP is not going to be intimidated by another VP – so they will then have a productive session among themselves. Quarantining them like this mitigates the risk of the lower ranking people shutting down. Of course, there will be times when mixing them within a group of non experts or lower ranking people may be desirable, but do this knowing the potential risks.

One of the things we do when we're planning brainsteering workshops with clients is to ask them to help us identify who the participants should be and also to help decide how to sort the 20 participants into the subgroups of 4 or 5 people. Sometimes we promote the practice of people from various departments being combined in the same subgroup. Another lens for dividing the participants into the subgroups can be to have a mixture of job levels or ranks. But when thinking about job levels, seldom would you put a receptionist in the same group as the CEO, because the receptionist may be intimidated and not say a word (but there may be exceptions to this as well).

VB: The self-appointed devil's advocate can also be an idea crusher, can't they?

Shawn Coyne: Yes. Devil's advocates can be useful, but if they go too far they become unhelpful. The great thing about a devil's advocate is they will keep people honest and from being naïve when thinking up and discussing new ideas.

For example, in the course of a 30-minute session among 3 to 5 people, if somebody is a devil's advocate in that session they can add great value when the first few ideas start popping out and they're not very good. They can help clarify why the ideas are not good and, in so doing, point the group in the direction of improving the idea.

So devil's advocates can certainly play a valuable role. But if all they ever do is be naysayers, and they don't help the group tee up a more productive next-step discussion, then they are just a distraction.

VB: Not only a distraction but also an irritation and always interrupting the discussion.

Shawn Coyne: Yes, they can become annoying and useless to the group.

A devil's advocate is valuable if they are willing to say, 'This is the wrong answer, here's how it's wrong, and this is how could we make it better'. Value is added when this person offers suggestions which improve the focus of the group.

As you said, it's just an irritation if a person merely sits with the group and always responds, 'Oh, it will never work. We tried that before… Blah blah blah.' Playing the role of always pooping on everybody's ideas does nobody any good at all.

VB: You recommend against asking participants at a brainsteering workshop to pick the best of the ideas which have been produced. Why is this not a good approach?

Shawn Coyne: The first reason is, oftentimes the people you need to generate the ideas are different than those you need to evaluate them.

Let's think of examples of the types of people we might want involved in a brainsteering session in a typical company where we're trying to come up with new products. We may want to have the receptionist who hears customers call in with complaints about our product. Another would be a sales person who talks to customers all the time, hearing them say what are the strengths and weaknesses of the company's existing products. Also valuable would be a laboratory scientist who knows how chemicals can go together and can be changed to make a different detergent, or whatever it is. Those people are contributing to the idea generation process because of the diverse perspectives they have. Their perspectives may not be the same perspective required of someone who has to make a decision about which of the various ideas generated is ultimately going to be implemented.

Although both junior and more senior or seasoned personnel might be valuable in the idea session, when it comes time to make decisions, the more senior person usually has experience looking across multiple functions and multiple silos within the company, and understanding the trade-offs which will have to be made. They will likely have a more holistic view of what it takes for product development and introduction into the marketplace. They will also be able to take into consideration relative priorities for funding within the company's limited budget. A lot of times the perspective needed to do the comparative analysis among ideas, and to consider trade offs among conflicting priorities leading to the final decision about which idea or ideas to go ahead with, is a different perspective than is needed to come up with ideas in the first place. This is why we say that a lot of times the people who came up with the ideas are not necessarily the most appropriate people to decide on the ideas.

A second reason for not asking participants at a brainsteering session to pick the best idea relates to a dynamic which takes place in any ideation session. There is a likelihood participants will become overly optimistic and excited about the new ideas which are generated. They may even be a bit biased about an idea because it was their idea, and therefore have a hard time seeing the flaws in it.

Third, sometimes the power of the presentation of an idea (when it's presented to the group at the end of the day) can turn out to be more influential than the merits of the actual idea. It can suffer from the phenomenon of a popularity contest among the people who were there that day.

Part of the brainsteering process is, at the end of the day, the 5 different groups of 4 people get back together as a larger group of 20 and share all the ideas they came up with. We do this so the participants can see that they came up with a lot of ideas and be proud of the hard work they did during this day. We also do it so the senior decision makers, who will later make the decisions about the merits of the ideas, get to hear straight from the horses' mouths about these ideas, as opposed to only reading the write-up the group produced. Their quickly written summary might not be as complete as their verbal description, and only reading it doesn't give the senior person the opportunity to ask questions directly of the contributors.

On those occasions where we have allowed the group to vote on what they thought were the best ideas, it has often been the case that the best ideas were not the ones the group selected as being the best. The popular ideas were not necessarily the most financially or strategically sound. They were sometimes just the ones where the presenter happened to have a lot of charisma because he was the national sales manager. Another subgroup's brilliant idea was undervalued because the presenter, who worked in a laboratory, was not skilled at presenting it with charisma. Only the next day, under closer inspection and with a more deliberate analysis, did the full value of his idea start to be fully appreciated. Only then was the pretty good idea presented by the national sales manager in a sexy way put into proper perspective.

VB: When presenting a new idea, the 'gift of gab' can be persuasive.

Shawn Coyne: Yes, and we've seen this happen.

At the end of a traditional brainstorming session you see the same thing happen. The gift of the gab can cause 'the sizzle to overwhelm the steak', and everybody wakes up with buyer's remorse the next morning.

VB: In Brainsteering you say, "…you're more likely to succeed by thinking inside a box – the key is to find just the right box in which to think." How does one do this?

Shawn Coyne: If you're always thinking completely outside the box with no constraints, your mind doesn't know where to focus. This is why we say the key is to think inside the box.

When we say it needs to be inside the right box, we mean it needs to be one that is tight enough to help focus your thinking. It needs to be one that forces you to look at the issue from a different perspective than you normally would, so that you don't just come up with the same ideas you normally would. But it also needs to be one which is not so tightly constrained that there is only one possible answer. If you create a question that makes you think, 'Wow this question is so narrowly focused there's only one possible answer,' then that's not a productive question.

When we are creating the Right Questions with clients, one of the criteria we use is, it has to be something that causes you to think about the problem in a different way than ever before. Also, while creating the questions, they should be ones which immediately spawn 2 or 3 ideas in your mind. If you can think of 2 or 3, the group is going to make it 20, 30, or more.

The Right Questions have to be narrow enough and focused enough to channel people's energies, but still broad enough to leave room for lots of good ideas to come out of them.

VB: No doubt a lot of skill and practice is required to be able to develop the most productive questions.

Shawn Coyne: Yes. We've spent 14 years thinking up the Right Questions – obviously with the help of many other people.

One of the things we talk about in our book is how it's great to have a list of Right Questions. In the appendix, we provide 101 Right Questions to get people started. But, as we mention in one of the later chapters, if you are leading a group of people who will be responsible for coming up with lots of ideas, sometimes you need to be a little bit careful about giving them Right Questions too quickly. If you do this, they may glom onto the ones you have given them and not go through the difficult and painful process of trying to think of ones on their own. It is usually better for participants to think up questions and, through this experience, learn which are good and which are less productive in stimulating the generation of new ideas. With this experience of thinking up 'Right Questions' they'll do a better job the next time.

If the session you are leading is a one-time event and your objective is to quickly come up with some great ideas, then by all means feel free to go to the back of our book, pull out some relevant Right Questions, adapt them to your situation, and go for it. But if you're charged with a longer-term responsibility of increasing the overall creativity of the group, then you've got to be careful not to spoon feed them too much too soon. If you do this, you might stunt their long-term growth.

VB: Is asking oneself original questions the best approach for coming up with innovative, breakthrough ideas?

Shawn Coyne: We would say yes, but let me qualify the definition of 'original'. Original does not mean that no one in the history of the world has ever asked this question before. There are billions of questions that have been asked, and if you have thought of a good question, then you can ask yourself this same question again as long as it will be in a different setting and circumstance. It can still be productive in helping you come up with lots of different ideas.

In addition, there are cases where somebody else might have used the Right Question, but it's a new and original question for you. If you've never used it before, then it is still likely to help you generate lots of new ideas, because for all intents and purposes, for you it's an original question.

If you are asking the same questions the same way all the time, they are not going to be helpful. This is why we say find an original take for your questions. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be the first person in history ever to ask this question.

VB: Why do some people seem to be much better at asking the 'Right Question'?

Shawn Coyne: In some cases it's because they've had more experience and practice at doing it. Also, some people are simply better at looking at things from a different perspective.

It's a matter of both nature and nurture. Some people may naturally be skilled at looking at things from a different angle. For others it's a matter of nurture – training, experience, and practice. We do know that whatever your natural level of ability is in developing useful questions, you can improve your level by practicing it over and over and thereby gaining experience.

VB: Do you agree that the most innovative CEOs have learned to always pick the best answer from the many possible answers to the 'Right Question'?

Shawn Coyne: That's a great question. I don't know whether even the most innovative CEO's have learned to always pick the best answer, but it does seem like some have done a better than average job of challenging people with the Right Questions. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are legendary for grilling the heck out of their people in various meetings and asking questions that nobody else had asked before. I wouldn't be surprised if those same successful CEOs are also pretty darn good at being able to say, "Wow. These questions we asked have produced 5 different answers or ideas, and I think the best answer among those 5 is more likely to be this one than the others."

Some people might be able to do it intuitively, but I suspect a lot of others do it because of their strength in analysis. Some might be good at both asking the question and identifying the best answer. There are also probably a lot of successful CEO's of companies that have been very innovative, but they didn't personally come up with the innovation. When presented with several possible innovations by their people, who thought up those innovative ideas, these CEOs probably did a better job of analyzing and deciding which one was likely to be the winner.

VB: The most innovative CEOs probably have a combination of experience, intuition, gut-feel, and analytical thinking.

Shawn Coyne: Yes, it can be all of those elements and certainly with practice you can get better with the processes and procedures to generate good questions, and do sound analysis of the alternative ideas which were generated. Much can be solved with hard work and practice.

We've already talked about different ways people come up with better questions over time. There's another section in the book where we talk about how people can use analysis to do a better job of selecting the best answer, or improve a mediocre answer and turn it into the best answer from among several initial ideas. This is done by combining analysis with creativity.

One of our pet peeves, as you will have read in the book, is a lot of people speak as if creativity and analytical skills are opponents of each other. In fact, they are strong complements to each other. A lot of the most successful people do a good job of combining creativity and hard core analysis. Look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or people who are in creative jobs such as Hollywood producers.

We give several instances in the book about how even things that seem to be almost purely creative tend to have a lot of analysis behind them. The most successful people can either do both things, or they have people in their organization who are able to complement their shortcomings. They get those two sides of the organization working together.

VB: I gather one can reuse the same questions to come up with different ideas at different times. How does this work?

Shawn Coyne: The reason you can re-use the same questions or, at the least, the same questions with only minor modifications, is, there are certain questions that are great questions in any number of different environments. There is a caution. If you use the same question in the same environment over and over again, eventually it will lose its power. There are certain times when you can ask a question, then next month ask the same question, and it will actually work for several months in a row. Eventually it will run out of power because you risk falling into an intellectual rut. As long as it is being used in a different context, it has the potential to be evergreen and keep stimulating great new ideas.

Some of our questions, like "What's the biggest hassle?" can be applied in all kinds of different industries and situations, irrespective of whether it's trying to come up with a new product or process. Some of the value of these questions goes on forever.

Also, the same question, even for the same issue, can be useful if it's being asked of a different group of people. This would be done in two different sessions and many other new ideas will be the result.

[Vern's note: The second half of my interview with Shawn Coyne will be published in IdeaConnection's newsletter two weeks hence.]

Conclusion:
Co-authors Shawn Coyne and Kevin Coyne include 101 useful "Right Questions" which will get us started in developing our own Right Questions to generate ideas to solve our problems. They advise there are five lines of inquiry for developing new products and services. They are:
  1. Identifying unsolved customer problems

  2. "De-averaging" users and activities

  3. Exploring unexpected successes

  4. Imagining perfection

  5. Discovering unrecognized "headroom" (For example, room for expansion of markets)


Shawn Coyne's Bio:
Shawn T. Coyne has 25 years of experience in strategic management consulting, brand management, and business leadership. He has served as Senior Managing Principal & CAO of Zyman Group, an international marketing consulting firm; as co-founder and CEO of Connexxia LLC, a communications services company; as an Associate Principal at McKinsey & Company, where he served major clients in the fields of telecommunications, consumer electronics, banking, information services, sports management, and mass communications; and as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, where he helped grow such iconic brands as Tide®, Ivory®, and Safeguard®.

He holds a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Shawn T. Coyne has written articles for the Harvard Business Review and other leading publications, and has been featured in such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal and Fox Business News. He is co-author with Kevin P. Coyne of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas (2011).

Feedback Welcome:
We would appreciate receiving feedback about this, or any of our other articles on the IdeaConnection.com website. [Please write us] with any comments or suggestions.

If you would like us to interview you about an article or book you have written, or an interesting idea, or a business you are involved with, [please let us know].

To read other interviews with authors and people interested in innovation, creativity, and business leadership please go to Interviews with Innovation Authors and Corporate Innovators. To read interviews with corporate innovators please go to Conversations with Corporate Innovators.

Share on        
Next Interview »