Innovating by Asking Why

Innovation & Creativity Model ©2006 Dave Pollard & Meeting of Minds
(see explanation at end of this article)

I like the way Umair Haque’s mind works. His paper on the economics of peer production is masterful. Now he’s thinking about innovation. In the past, he says, good innovators started with the customer and asked who (has a need), what (could we offer of value), and how (could we produce this in a novel, differentiated way). Now, he says, perhaps the most important question we can ask is why we produce what we do. Asking why is not new, but asking really profound ‘whys’ can get you thinking about radically different, highly disruptive innovation opportunities. Umair offers these examples:

Coordination innovators should ask: why do we interact?

Brand innovators should ask: why do we need to attach social meanings?

Media innovators should ask: why do we need to mediate?

Makers of markets, networks, and communities should ask: why do we need the company?

Disruptive managers should ask: why do we need to control?

Strategists should ask: why do we need competencies at the core? Why do we need to compete?

If you’ve been a change advocate and reading these questions doesn’t send a little shiver of excitement up your spine, check your pulse.

The obvious answer to most of these questions is that at one time there was a need to do so. As I keep saying (yes I’m going to say it again) things are the way they are for a reason, and it is essential to understand that reason before trying to institute a change.

The less obvious answer to most of these questions is we don’t (anymore), and that of course opens up the more interesting question: If we stopped doing this, what might we do instead?

What excites me most about these questions is how they can be applied by entrepreneurs to disrupt an entire industry by asking these questions before the big, slow moving players in that industry do. What has always fascinated (and annoyed) me about books about entrepreneurship and how to start your own business is their assumption that the answer to all the questions above (and a bunch more I’ll get to in a minute) is not we don’t (anymore) but rather because the big companies have always done that so if we want to be (successful) like them we have to do that, too. So business books tell you you have to do lots of advance planning, create hierarchy, grow (or die), market your product through the media, achieve competitive advantage, etc. ad nauseam.

Here are a few more ‘why’ questions that challenge organizational orthodoxy:

HR innovators should ask: why do we have employees? Why do we have titles? Why do we ‘promote’ people? Why do we pay people based on seniority, rank or performance? Why do people not love working for us, so we have to bribe them with more and more money?

Product innovators should ask: why does the producer design the products ‘for’ the customer? Why do we need people to ‘sell’ the product, if it’s so good?

Strategists should ask: why do shareholders get a vote? Why do we care about ‘shareholder value’? Why do we entrust a few executives to make all the critical decisions? Why do executives get more money and perks than anyone else?

Financial innovators should ask: why do we measure performance by profit and growth?

Now, if you’re a prospective entrepreneur, rather than asking these ‘why’ questions of your own organization, you could ask them of the industry you would like to disrupt. And if your answer is (after careful consideration) that these things are done because they used to be necessary or effective, but no longer are, then you could start asking yourself the obvious ‘what if’ innovation corollaries, such as:

What if we created a business by self-selecting our partners, all of whom would rank equally, and who would work in whatever role and as many hours as they choose, and be paid what they needed?

What if we co-created, co-designed, even co-manufactured our products and services with our (prospective) customers, so we wouldn’t need to sell, or market (the customers would market for us, by word of mouth), and so the distinction between customers and producers disappeared?

What if we measured success by the happiness of our partners and our customers, and by the innovativeness, sustainability and resilience of the enterprise rather than its profitability?

What if we designed the enterprise so it didn’t need to constantly grow to be healthy, and so that it used only renewable energy and produced no waste, no pollution, and 100% recyclable products?

What if we only borrowed what we absolutely needed to remain sustainable, borrowed it from customers rather than outsiders, and paid it back as soon as possible, so we were beholden to no one?

What if we had mechanisms to constantly tap the ‘wisdom of crowds’ by having our partners and customers and communities make all critical choices for us?

What if we used conversations exclusively, rather than written documents, to convey information, achieve consensus and make decisions?

What if, before it got too big and unwieldy, we allowed parts of our enterprise to organically split off into separate autonomous enterprises, as our (their) partners desired, so that the organization(s) would remain completely democratic, with all decisions agreed to unanimously by all partners affected?

What if our organization, and all the other entrepreneurial organizations daring to ask these innovative ‘what if’ questions, agreed to work collaboratively as a network instead of in competition, sharing information, capacity and resources freely, generously, and reciprocally, with reputation and trust rather than money being the currency of exchange?

This collaborative network of Natural Enterprises would collectively have enormous power, information, capacity for innovation, speed-to-market, and resilience, and none of the barriers that make traditional large organizations ineffective, un-innovative and inflexible. In a word, we would render the old corporate model obsolete.

But to do that we have to stop emulating these clumsy dinosaurs, and work together. We can start by asking some heretical why and what if questions.

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6 Responses to Innovating by Asking Why

  1. Good. Why?Why should we ask why?– To save the world.No. To save the world is no answer.It’s a question. The answer is:Let’s do it. Be.See? We are.

  2. Jack Yan says:

    Wonderful, Dave: one of the most nagging questions any human being can have is

  3. “Disruptive managers should ask: why do we need to control?”I tend to think control issues are trust issues, at their core. Trust of others, and self-trust.

  4. Dave Sabol says:

    I think the antithesis of innovation is the mentality that “we have always done it this way”, we need to consciously examine what we are doing and why are we doing it to make sure that the paradigms that caused it to do it in the first place are still the same. If not, the answer is simple, change the way you do things.Great thoughts.

  5. Ruben Sun says:

    Interesting.I am thinking that maybe a series of these questions might help identify values and clarify what one might want to do in life. no?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Excellent points, everyone. Thanks.

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