• May 31, 2016

Innovative Answers Start With the Right Question

Disruptors don’t find new answers to old questions—they flip the question. How can you do the same?

From a strategic and a data querying perspective, the question you pose matters. It directs both your thinking and the answers you seek. If you ask the wrong question, the correct response will still be the wrong answer. Further, if you ask only the expected questions, you’ll get only business-as-usual answers and not one that leads to innovation. To uncover new innovations, flip the question. It’s exactly what disruptors do.

For example, if your question is, “Where is the cheapest fuel on my journey’s route?” you’ll get the right answer about where to find the cheapest place to refuel for that route. However, if what you meant to ask was, “Where is the cheapest fuel within a distance of net negative travel cost?” (travel costs to get the fuel and return does not consume your fuel savings), then the answer you got to the question you asked is the wrong one because you limited the query to the direct path.

Flight of the Bumblebee

Consider that airlines monitor jet fuel costs at various fueling sources constantly in order to ensure fuel costs stay low and their profits high. This is more crucial in periods of high fuel costs than it is in low-cost periods, but it’s always considered a critical factor in profitability.

As a matter of convenience and perhaps of time, the simplest thing to do would be to fuel all planes at the airport from which they depart. Since fuel prices tend to vary greatly among airports and airport fueling vendors, this leaves little to no control over costs for the airline. They are simply at the mercy of airports and airport fueling vendors.

If the airline wants control over fueling costs, it will consider other stops the plane can make to refuel. The first thought that comes to mind is to check prices on fueling points very near to that flight’s departing airport. But that eliminates a lot of possibilities and restricts options to only a few fueling stations.

If the question is flipped to ask where the lowest fuel prices are with the calculation of travel and time costs as part of the algorithm inputs, then the airline can gather the fuel it needs for each flight at the lowest cost. It’s now in control of its fuel costs for all practical purposes. For example, a plane may drop off passengers in New York City then fly to New Jersey to refuel (if that’s where the cheapest fuel price is and the extra travel costs little) and then fly back to New York to pick up the next load of passengers.

Flipping the question to increase the relevancy of the answer to the core problem renders the solution you actually seek.

How Disruptors Flip the Question

Now consider how Uber flipped the question by eliminating fuel as a consideration at all. Instead of asking where the cheapest fuel is, Uber may have asked how to cut fuel costs entirely. The answer of course would be to not need fuel in the first place, but how do you not need fuel? By not owning or renting vehicles. How would you do that and still have vehicles for hire? By using other people’s vehicles and let fuel costs—and equipment costs too—be their expense. Voila! A new business model.

While that may not be exactly how Uber came up with the idea, the point illustrates how flipping the expected question, “Where’s the cheapest fuel?” to the truly intended question, “How do I eliminate fuel costs?” can foster innovation.

How to Ask Questions Like a Disruptor

According to Maxwell Wessel in his Harvard Business Review post, disruptive innovations are:

  • Cheaper (from a customer perspective)
  • More accessible (from a usability or distribution perspective)
  • Using a business model with structural cost advantages (relative to existing solutions)

There’s nothing in that definition that requires disruptive innovations to come from outside. Any company can do it internally. The key is to review those three defining features of disruptive innovations and use them to guide the way the questions related to strategy development or data querying can be flipped.

Automate the normal and mundane, and free your people to create new questions and flip old ones in light of those three features.

  • Take the old question of how to reduce costs or increase efficiencies, and flip it to question how to eliminate those structural costs entirely.
  • Instead of just managing your business processes, ask what it is your company is trying to achieve with each of those processes—and then flip the question from how to manage those to what new processes would achieve those goals better.
  • Instead of asking only how you can improve distribution, ask how you would handle distribution if suddenly you couldn’t do it in the usual way.

Flip every question to discover a different perspective and a wider choice of options. Odds are you’ll quickly see an entirely new path forward through an innovation you simply overlooked by asking the wrong question.

Like this story? Learn more about self-disruption.