Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

One Compelling Question for Innovators

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Guest post by David Sturt for Lead on Purpose blog

I recently came across a story in Wired magazine about a radically new technology being developed for heating and cooling. Aside from the exciting product idea to heat and cool a person rather than a place, I was intrigued by this statement about how the idea germinated:

At a point when humans need to take a sober look at our energy use, we’re poised to use a devastating amount of it keeping our homes and offices at the right temperatures in years to come. A team of students at MIT, however, is busy working on a prototype device that could eliminate much of that demand, and they’re doing it by asking one compelling question: “Why not just heat and cool our bodies instead?” (emphasis added).

Asking the right question is one of five key skills that predict great work, as identified from a sample of 1.7 million instances of award-winning work.

In a related study, the O.C. Tanner Institute asked more than 1,000 employees, beneficiaries and supervisors to answer specific questions about great work. Surprisingly, in 88 percent of cases labeled as “great work,” the worker had paused to formulate a variant of this question, “What more can I do to produce work that people love?”

The O.C. Tanner Institute’s research revealed that asking the right question(s) increases the odds of someone’s work having a positive effect on another’s by 4.1 times! It made the outcome 3.1 times more likely to be deemed important, 2.8 times more likely to create passion in the doer, and perhaps most significant to company leaders, 2.7 times more likely to make a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line

In reading the Wired article, I was reminded of another great question, that someone asked more than 40 years ago—a profound inquiry that fundamentally changed how we communicate with each other, every day.

At this time, I was 9 years old and 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 to determine if a call was for us, or the next farm over. It does not seem like that long ago

During this same period, in a distant corner of the world, a young Motorola engineer named Marty 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 an insightful question.

“Why is it that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a place?” That nagging question changed the trajectory of their work, as Marty refocused his team’s attention on untethering a person from a place (including a car).

In 1973, Marty made the first cellphone call on a prototype of what would later become the DynaTAC 8000X, lovingly referred to as “the brick.” It cost $4,000 and had a battery life of just 20 minutes. That first cellphone marked the beginning of a new era of personal communication.

How often in your daily work do you question your expected or normal work patterns? When you receive an assignment, do you rush to complete the task or do you pause and ask whether there is something you can improve in order to deliver something even better—a product or result that those who receive your work will love?

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 his or her 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 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 and impressions of the fragile development of new ideas just beginning to form. Absorb them. Listen to them. Take counsel from them.

Think about the people. Sometimes it helps to begin with a specific person in mind and work to create something they love. Thinking of a single recipient to please may be an extreme response to the old axiom “you can’t please all the people all the time.” But, it can also be a really good exercise in simplifying the process of innovation.

In 1999, famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut told NPR that he created everything he ever wrote with one specific reader in mind: his sister Allie. “It’s just trusting the taste of someone else,” he said.

Ask 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 our interviews we were intrigued by how many unique versions of this root question appeared, and the prodigious effect it had on outcomes.

Whether or not your own effort will generate the impact of revolutionary heating and cooling or the way a cell phone has changed communication, it will significantly influence your ability to produce the kind of products, services and outcomes that people will love. And, that’s great work!

David Sturt is executive vice president at the O.C. Tanner Institute and author of The New York Times best-selling book, Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (McGraw-Hill 2013). He is a regular contributor at Forbes.com. More information is available at www.greatwork.com.

The Product Management Perspective: One of the key points of this article for product managers is asking the right questions. What’s perhaps even more important is the need to observe how your customers are using your products, or the processes they go through to achieve results your product could automate. I recommend you spend some time with Steve Johnson’s recent article: Don’t discover; observe to gain additional insight into this important product management practice.

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