In this post on skills, we look at how using specific question combinations can improve our creativity and innovation and how, as leaders, we can improve the innovation of both an individual follower or team. We look first at the ‘Why not?’/ ‘How?’ combination and from that derive the group discovery technique (GDT), then at ‘Why?’/‘Why?’, ‘How?’/‘How?’, ‘What?’/‘How?’ and ‘What?’/‘Why?’.


image for why not

We have already seen this combination in action with the Alaskan Electricity example from a previous post, when it was used to find a single action area from the root cause of the problem. The symptom was the negative effect on profits, caused by the cost of work teams addressing the root problem, which was ice and snow breaking overhead cables. Recalling the sequence, we had in how to improve your listening skills:

‘Why not shake the poles?’

‘How can we shake the poles?’

‘Why not use bears to shake the poles?’

‘How do we motivate the bears to shake the poles?’

‘Why not put meat on top of the poles?’

‘How do get meat to the top of the poles?’

‘Why not use helicopters to put the meat on top of the poles?’

‘Why not forget the bears and use the helicopters to sweep away the ice and snow before it breaks the cables?’

Similarly, if poor quality was the one cause of loss of sale revenue, a ‘Why not?’/‘How?’ sequence could be:

‘Why not improve the quality of the product?’

‘How can we do that?’

‘Why not ensure staff are more committed to eradicating quality defects?’

‘How can we do that?’

‘Why don’t we give them more responsibility and autonomy?’

‘How can we do that?’

‘Why don’t we develop self-managing teams, which are allowed to implement any quality improvements they determine are relevant?’

Further analysis leads to recognition of the need for and power of the group discovery technique (GDT).


image for GTD

Looking back to the Alaskan Electricity example, what do you think would have happened to the development of the idea if the response by one group member to the first suggestion had been, ‘With respect, there are over a 1000 miles of poles, so that suggestion simply won’t work’?

Again, assuming the first criticism did not emerge until the suggestion that bears should shake the poles had been made, and it was along the lines of ‘With respect, that simply won’t work. I have carried out extensive research, and there are only three polar bears in Alaska’, what might have happened?

Criticism destroys creativity, and often leads to the one right answer – that of the leader! Usually that result is not intended at the outset. It is simply that the more logical we are (and we are all brought up to communicate verbally in logical sequences), the more we have developed our critical faculties. We can instantly see flaws in any idea. So, we have to apply and enforce a simple rule on ourselves and our followers if we want to have/develop a range of ideas:

During the exploration phase (which need only last 10 to 15 minutes), no criticism is allowed, in word or body language form.

Criticism must be left to the evaluation stage.

Furthermore, it is not sufficient to simply avoid the negative as otherwise you just get a number of undeveloped suggestions from different individuals. Everyone should deliberately suspend judgement (which is a key to effective listening as we know) and help each other to develop the initial suggestion into a sound action.

It is the combination of questioning and listening that leads to discovery. By using the GDT whenever you or the group asks an open question, you guarantee that the group’s combined power exceeds the sum of the individual contributions and achieve that rare reality in the workplace, synergy.


Let us now look at Figure 7.1. There are two key points to make about it.

figure 7.1

First, as pointed out, the actual phrasing of the question is important. We would not use a bald ‘why?’, but the more open question ‘What could all the possible reasons be for…’ followed by the issue or problem under consideration. We need to encourage what is termed ‘thinking outside the box’ – that is breaking free of the usual assumptions and mind-sets we all fall into so as to develop new insights and angles. This is permitted, nay desirable, when we are exploring and before we evaluate.

So, we phrase the question in such a way to enable us and others to come forward with all sorts of possibilities. This increases the probability that, as we develop each initial sub-issue with another ‘What could all the possible reasons be for…’, we will come up with a set of reasons or causes that are more all-embracing than would otherwise be the case.

Second, a cause is also a possible solution – either an action area or an alternative action. So, by following the ‘Why?’/‘Why?’ approach, we are uncovering a set of solutions at the same time! Thus, taking our first example in Figure 7.1, and accepting that there could be a much wider range of causes at each level, let us assume that the market is expanding and there has been no competitor price war, so we know that we need to improve the quality of the product to reverse the decline in sales. We already have a set of options to consider as to how to do that, because we have followed the causal chain down.


figure 7.2

This is the traditional creative thinking route, and an example can be found in Figure 7.2. Again, I have two points I would like to make.

First, rather than using the bland ‘how?’, I suggest asking a question that focuses on action (the end product of creativity) as well as encouraging exploration, which is ‘What are all the possible actions we could take to…’ followed by the area to be improved. In Figure 7.2, the first example of such an area is that of increasing the sales revenue.

Second, when we use the question ‘What are all the possible actions we could take to…’, we may well come up with more action areas than specific actions. So, we apply the long version of the ‘How?’, until it is obvious that it is no longer the right question. At that point, in fact, a different open question needs to be asked to achieve the detail required for implementation.

So, at the first level of use of the question for our first example in Figure 7.2, we have the answer ‘Cut prices’. This is the end action area as using the question again, ‘What are all the actions we could take to cut prices?’, is a nonsense question. However, for the purposes of implementation or decision making, we would need to ask different questions, such as ‘By what amount?’ and ‘What variations of prices would be necessary over our product range?’ In real life, research would be needed to determine what level of price cut for each product would maximize the increase in revenue.

Equally, at the first level for our second example in Figure 7.2, we have ‘What are all the possible actions we could take to improve motivation of sales staff?’ As this is still an action area, we can apply this long form of the ‘How?’ question and get a series of answers. We continue this process until we have an action area where a different type of question needs to be used. As shown, ‘training’ is an action response to the question ‘What are all the possible actions we can take to improve team working?’ and the final questions to enable action planning or implementation of training are ‘What sort?’, ‘When?’ and ‘By whom?’


figure 7.3

Figure 7.3 shows the technique known as force field analysis. Like most creative-thinking or problem-solving techniques it boils down to asking open questions.

Any change to be introduced or situation to be improved is the issue. As an example, we could take use of a networked system. The current use would be a position of dynamic equilibrium, held in balance by the impact of two opposing forces – restraining forces and driving forces. The restraining forces push towards deterioration – in this case, less use of the system – and the driving forces push for improvement – greater use.

If the power of a single restraining force is reduced or the power of single driving force increased, the balance point (in this case the degree of use) will shift in the improvement direction. Therefore, having identified the end goal to be achieved over a certain time period, continuous improvement can be made to achieve it. The initial process, which can be repeated regularly, involves asking a series of open questions and looking at the answers.

Identify Forces

First, ask the question ‘What are all the possible driving forces?’ Examples would include enthusiastic support staff, a champion, a business need, customer demand, easy access and so on.

Then ask ‘What are all the possible restraining forces?’ These could be fear of technology, lack of databases, poor training, poor understanding of benefits, poor system coordination and so on.


The next step is to ask ‘What are the most important driving/ restraining forces?’ It is wise to limit yourself or the team to no more than two key driving forces/restraining forces. Otherwise you will end up with too many things to do. In a team situation, the easiest way to prioritize is for each individual to select their top two, and use a scoring system to determine the two overall favourites.

Note – all these techniques can be done individually or with a small team.

Action plan

Now apply the ‘How?’/‘How?’ approach (but using the action phrasing) to develop action plans to reduce or eliminate the impact of the two key restraining forces, and to increase the effectiveness of the two key driving forces (or introduce one or two new driving forces that were discovered in the initial exploration phase).


This is a simple and powerful technique that recognizes we all make assumptions, some of which can be invalid.

So, when considering a problem or issue, we need to follow this simple process.

  • Identify. What are all the assumptions we could be making?
  • Check validity. Why are we making them?
  • Remove invalid assumptions.
  • Discover better solutions.

Now we have discovered techniques that will enable us to be more effective questioners and listeners, and how to apply questioning combinations, using the GDT, to be more creative ourselves and to guarantee synergy in any group we lead, in the next post we turn to another key responsibility of an effective leader – improving staff performance.