Innovation? Question like an anthropologist!

One of the talks at the Design Thinking Ireland conference in May challenged the audience to think about why we don’t ask enough questions. As children, we are constantly asking questions (the average 4-year-old asks 390 questions a day). Yet once we reach a certain age, we stop asking so many; the flood becomes a trickle (no doubt to the relief of parents everywhere).

Apparently, most adults are afraid to ask questions. Because in our jobs we’re expected to be the expert, to come up with ideas. If a colleague started asking lots of  what appeared to be  self-evident questions, you might start to wonder about their expertise and experience. When we’re new to a company we get a free pass – we don’t yet know ‘how things are done around here’ so we permitted, expected even, to ask questions. The silent, unquestioning employee is a concern  don’t they want to know anything?

The manager who wasn’t afraid to ask questions

There once was a manager who was moved from one part of a large corporation to another ‘problematic’ division: the employees and the customers were unhappy. Other managers had tried and failed. No one could explain what the issues were other than the service was poor, and the employees were lazy and difficult. Her task was to fix the mess. Rather than trying to assert her authority straight away, as the previous managers had done, she decided she wanted to find out what was going on. So she asked questions of all the people involved and impacted: customers, salespeople, admin staff, warehouse staff, accounts, and so on. She approached the problem in a different way and with a fresh perspective: she acted dumb or naïve, assumed nothing, and sought to understand what people were actually doing and why. (Instead of undermining her authority, her questions were perceived by the ‘difficult’ employees as interest and concern, which gave her more respect and authority in their eyes.)

The manager who wasn’t afraid to ask questions turned around a difficult division of the company: service improved substantially as did morale.

Innovative companies ask questions

Companies that want to introduce change or disrupt the market  however you want to term this ‘thing’ called innovation  ask questions. Lots of them. And they’re not afraid to.

Each year Forbes releases its list of 100 Innovative Companies. And what sets leaders of innovative companies apart from the rest? The ability to ask questions. The right questions. Not ‘what if’ questions but ‘why not’ and ‘why’. 

And it got me thinking. That’s exactly what anthropologists do. We are taught to constantly question and challenge that which appears to be normalised or natural, that which is taken for granted.

Which is why ethnographic research is such a powerful way to uncover insights for innovation. Because we’re asking the right questions, the ones non-anthropologists might not think to ask.

Cultivate your curiosity

But aside from hiring an anthropologist (or becoming one), how do you teach yourself to ask questions and challenge assumptions? Here are a couple of ways.

  • Cultivate your curiosity. We’re hesitant to ask questions because we’re afraid of what people will think of us, that we might appear dumb or stupid. Allow your curiosity to overcome your need to look knowledgeable (a stance anthropologists adopt when doing research in the field in order to learn from the people they are studying). Re-discover a sense of wonder about the world. Challenge why something is being done a particular way. “Because it always has” isn’t a good enough answer. Keeping asking 'why'. Adopt a naive approach and be open to questioning that which is taken for granted.
  • Learn to observe. We live in a complex world, full of information that bombards our senses all the time so we learn to ignore much of it. We walk down to the local shops or drive to work without much remembering how we got there. You might say we sleepwalk through a lot of life, take things for granted, seeing what we expect to see. Start looking. Put down your phone and be in the world. Pick something to observe and then really look. You might be amazed at how much there is to see.

Once you start really looking and cultivating your curiosity, you will find yourself becoming more open to different perspectives and other ways of thinking.

Image credit: Photo by Dawn Walter.