Forty years ago, someone asked a profound question that fundamentally changed how we communicate with each other every day. At the time, I was nine years old living in South Africa. When our family visited my grandfather’s farm for the holidays, the telephone we used was a “party line”, where we would listen for the pattern of rings when the telephone rang to determine if the call was for us or for the next farm over. Hard to believe now–it does not seem that long ago.
At the same time, Marty, a young engineer at Motorola, was given a new assignment. He was asked to lead a team on a project that showed great promise—the next generation of a car radiotelephone. Marty accepted the challenge. However, instead of jumping in, he stepped back and paused, which led him to ask himself a very insightful question.
“Why is it that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a place?” That nagging, insightful question changed the entire trajectory of his work, as he refocused his team’s attention on untethering a person from a place (including a car).
In 1973, Marty made the first cell phone call on a prototype of what would later become the DynaTAC 8000X, lovingly referred to as “the brick”. It cost $4000 USD and had a battery life of just 20 minutes. That first cell phone marked the beginning of a new era of personal communication.
Our interview with Marty had striking similarities to more than 250 interviews we conducted and 10,000 descriptions of award-winning work we analyzed as part of a comprehensive study on great work. When we traced the genesis of innovation and value creation back to its source, we were surprised to see how many times it began with asking the right question.
The right question can be a disruptive agent, cutting through years of complacency to redirect a team or a company’s focus. It serves as a pointer, aiming us in the direction of the answer. As Einstein put it: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
From our research, the following three practical assists can inform and enhance the quality of the questions we ask, and lead to great work.
Pause. When a person opens their mind to the kind of ideas that come quietly they unveil the deeper, richer thoughts that are too easily chased away by the adrenaline of taking immediate action. Spend some time alone with your thoughts. Pause to let the purpose of your initiative marinate, percolate, and simmer. In the early stages of a difference-making quest, the simple act of paying attention to your thoughts can provide the few degrees of adjustment that brings about the greatest innovation. Everyone has hunches, impressions, and the fragile beginnings of new ideas still forming. Absorb them. Listen to them. Take counsel from them.
Think about the people. Who will the work or the product benefit? What are they trying to do? What do they value? What do they hope for? I love the question Clayton Christensen posed in The Innovator’s Solution, “what is the job this [product] is being hired to do?” What is hoped for, what outcome is desired, and what benefit will this solution provide to the beneficiary of your work?
What difference would people LOVE? What would the beneficiary of your work really love? Not just like. Not just feel better about. But what difference would they love? That question in particular seems to activate a deeply human power of creative energy inside us. It seems to open our minds beyond the ordinariness of what “is” in favor of what “could be”. In most of our interviews we were intrigued by how.
About the Author
David Sturt is a NY Times bestselling author and Executive Vice President of the O.C. Tanner Company. He has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CBS Radio, Huffington Post, and numerous other media organization. A weekly contributor to Forbes.com & speaks to audiences worldwide at HR & leadership conferences like SHRM, World at Work, ASHRA, Employers Council, Recognition Professionals International, HR Houston and Evanta. David has a degree in Training and Development and an MBA, and has two decades of experience in research, innovation and leadership.