Why we should all learn to think in “questions”

Kieran Flanagan   @ThinkKieranF

Typically, on confronting a challenge, an issue or a problem, we’ll come with a pre-conceived notion of a solution. In other words, we try to activate our creative thinking using a statement. Could this be a mistake? (See what I did there?)

So, why might this statement-based approach to creativity, problem-solving and innovation be a problem in itself and how might we work around it?

One of the reasons that statement-based problem solving can actually get in the way of our creativity is that it narrows our mental bandwidth and creates biases and blind spots in how we approach possible solutions. On having to cross a river, for example, there’s a world of difference between, “We need to build a bridge,” and, “How might we cross the river?” Statements presuppose a solution and so tend to close down possibilities, whereas questions open possibilities. For instance, you might decide a zip line or a ferry, a boat or even a tunnel is a better short term or long-term solution to your river conundrum - the point is, you only get there by asking a question. With statement-based ideation… you’re going to get a bridge and nothing but a bridge

1. Learn to think in questions

So how does this process play out in a practical way? Let me share an example from early in my professional life. Many years ago, we launched two bottled water brands into the market for Coca-Cola. The first brand in the market place enjoyed premium ranging with multiple refrigerator facings (in other words, there was a shelf-wide row of Mount Franklin bottles on dominating your eyeline).

The second brand into the market, Pump, was left with only a single bottle width fridge facing. For Pump’s brand team, this was a problem. 

So, they came to us with a fairly typical brief to solve the problem. They wanted us to design a shelf strip, a very thin ad that runs the length of the shelf, in order to draw attention to their lonely bottle’s ranging. Of course, when you ask for a marketing solution and you then stipulate what kind of marketing solution you’d like, you run the risk of getting exactly that and nothing more.

Our approach, however, involved framing the problem as a question not as a statement. The question became, “How might we increase Pump’s refrigerator presence?”

The solution we ultimately presented, and that Coke executed, was in fact an innovation solution, not a marketing one. We created the first “flavoured water” brand by adding three flavours and instantly quadrupled Pump’s fridge presence and also lifted sales significantly.

However, without the initial reframe as a question, we’d never have reached this solution.

2. Seek answers, not “The Answer”

Imagination is easy, but creativity is hard! 

We are all incredibly imaginative given the opportunity, however, creativity requires discipline and a willingness to apply our creativity to a particular task, under defined parameters within a given timeline. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game.

Too often we fall in love with our second idea. Our first idea is usually rubbish. The second is significantly better, but we decide to try a third one (usually also rubbish) just to be sure.

The problem with such a narrow exploration is that we generate default answers using default thinking.

When we work on problems or innovation opportunities at The Impossible Institute, we use Siimon Reynold’s infamous “Box Method”. It is breath-takingly simple but extraordinarily powerful.

The method consists of a single white page with four rows of five boxed drawn on it for a total of twenty boxes. The goal is to jot a simple concept or idea into each box and to not leave your desk till the page is full. When working with my business partner on a problem, we will both fill in 25-30 of these pages, which means, by the time we sit down to assess our answers we are choosing from a pool of over 1000 ideas. There may be smarter people than you trying to solve your problem or challenge, but the key is to outwork them.

For creativity and innovations that extend beyond your default thinking, discipline and numbers beat talent!

3. Seek to question answers

One of the issues you will also face when trying to be more innovative or to create new solutions to problems you and your team or even you customers face is the heavy burden of legacy solutions. The “We tried that in the 1980’s” brigade or the, “But we’ve never done it that way before,” chorus are innovation killers who must be reeled in if you are to achieve anything remotely new.

This requires a willingness to be solution agnostic and to evaluate all solutions, even your own babies, with a cold detachment. In other words, you need to question your answers in order to move beyond existing team biases (as well as your own).

4. Ask an impossible question

One of the reasons we called our business The Impossible Institute is because of a methodology we use called “Impossible Questions.” Often, leaders and organisations will dismiss lines of enquiry too soon by buying into existing frameworks of what’s possible and what is not.

Asking an impossible question allows you to get to the other side of an issue and then to see if you can reverse engineer what seems like an impossible solution into possibility.

Some years ago, we were working with an enormous financial institution that was experiencing a critical customer breakage point because of the number of customers who were put on hold whilst calling the contact centre and also because of the length of time they spent on hold.

Their customers got angry and abused their staff, their staff were stressed out and angry themselves and a downward spiral of experience was significantly affecting both customer and team engagement.

The leadership team had brought us in to run a performance workshop for the contact centre team so they could get customers “on and off the calls more quickly,” all while “delighting and surprising their customers.” You know… but fast!!! You might see the inherent oppositional KPIs they had set in place.

Our approach was again to ask a question, but this time we asked what they believed to be an impossible question, “What would it take for people to want to be put on hold?”

Initially, they’re default thinking kicked in, “They wouldn’t!” they complained. “Yes, but what could make them want to be put on hold?” we persisted.

In the end, we explored many possibilities including gamifying the on-hold experience with time-based rewards as well as exploring the possibility of getting music celebrities to record unplugged versions of their songs that could only be heard on this bank’s on hold music. People who weren’t even customers would call up and ask to be put on hold.

The point is, so much of our thinking, creativity and innovation is default, predictable and not nearly good enough for us to become leaders in our industries and fields.

However, we can move beyond our default thinking by thinking in questions, not statements. Or rather… 

How unlimited might our thinking become if we learned to think in questions?


Kieran Flanagan is an author, speaker, trainer and social commentator. She helps leaders, teams and organisations “make change positive” through developing Forever Skills including: 

#Innovation- Creativity & Problem Solving

#Collaboration- Teamwork & Team Dynamics

#Inspiration- Engagement & Presentation Mastery

#Transformation- Change & Leadership


Find out how Kieran can help you and your team develop commercial creativity and “make change positive” through her Keynote Presentations & Training Workshops. Contact info@TheImpossibleInstitute.com or visit www.TheImpossibleInstitute.com