HBR: by Tony Golsby-Smith

A big insurance company I know of wants to design a radical new future, so they have committed significant resources to large-scale innovation. But as the board and executive committee are learning, embracing innovation means starting to ask a whole new set of questions.

Here are three toxic questions that you probably ask that are guaranteed to kill innovation:

“What is the return on investment on this project?” This question scares innovation team and forces them to tell lies. They simply cannot answer it because it’s way too early to know what the ROI will be. So they either make up an answer and stretch the truth, or they throw buckets of speculative financial data at the question and hope no one notices that they aren’t answering it.

“Can you prove your case and back it up with hard data?” Ask this question of an innovation team, and they will put all their energy into the wrong areas. They will try hard to extrapolate numbers from market trends and past experience, rather than thinking about customers, good ideas, and new paradigms.

“Are you meeting your milestones?” This question will force an innovation team to abandon anything controversial and go back to the concrete world that they already know. They might get something done, but it won’t be innovative. Milestones suit a construction project where you know what you are going to build, but they are inappropriate for an innovation or learning project.

As a board member or executive committee member, you aren’t necessarily trying to kill innovation. It’s just that innovation runs counter to so many of the standard tests and processes that make businesses (and executives) successful. It’s hard to accept that innovation requires exploring unknown territory via a winding road — you cannot see around the next corner. You have to be comfortable with “We’re not sure yet.”

Fortunately, there are some great alternative questions can you ask both to give you insight into what your innovators and doing and to help them feel comfortable and thrive.

••• Click here to see these alternative questions:

Not long ago I was invited to address the 800 students and teachers of the Senior School of St Michael’s Grammar School, St Kilda, Melbourne.

I was asked to talk about “Diversity in Thinking”.

In 1983, School of Thinking originated the idea of ‘Six Thinking Hats’ to show that there is more than the traditional one way of thinking–logic.

Today, after 30 years of teaching thinking and training teachers of thinking around the world, it is plain to me that there is a vast, virtually unlimited, number of ways of thinking ( for example, see this Wikipedia list).

There are not just 6 thinking hats, nor 60 thinking hats nor even 600 thinking hats, there are in fact many, many more … at least 6 billion thinking hats on Planet Earth!

To get you started, here are over 100 THINKTIPS reprinted from my book THE X10 MEMEPLEX: Multiply Your Business By Ten! (Prentice Hall 2000):

ESCAPE: How can I escape?
“Help! I’m trapped. How can I escape?” This is the cry of the thinker. Why? Because THE most difficult feat of thinking is to escape from your point-of-view. All of us are trapped in the special world we create for ourselves in our brain, our own unique viewpoint, our CVS. Your world and my world are different. You are trapped in your CVS as surely as I am trapped in my CVS.

•• For the other 99 THINKTIPS click through to here …