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Want innovative ideas? Ask “killer” questions

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 

Phil McKinney believes that developing game-changing innovations is a matter of asking the right questions.

Not just any questions, but what McKinney deems the “killer” questions that provoke not only  thoughtful responses, but also thoughtful processes that lead to discovery.

Phil McKinney

“Killer questions are those that can’t be answered without first figuring out how to address the question and going through a process,” he said.

McKinney should know. Until his recent retirement in December, he worked as vice president and chief technology officer for Hewlett-Packard’s Personal Systems Group, where he was responsible for the research and development of desktop and notebook computers as well as other products. He also founded and led a program to identify and launch new products and services. What’s more, McKinney literally wrote the book on the subject with the publication of “Beyond The Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation.”

McKinney now works as an innovation management consultant and speaker who delivers more than 100 presentations a year.

McKinney was the keynote speaker at a recent science, technology, engineering and mathematics event at the Ricks Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver. Afterwards, he discussed innovation in a telephone interview with the Business Times.

Innovation isn’t the exclusive province of high-tech corporations competing to survive in a global marketplace, McKinney said. In fact, research conducted by the U.S. Small Business Administration found that small firms obtain more patents per employee than large firms and outperform their larger counterparts by a number of measures, he said.

Small businesses are often more innovative than large firms because the entrepreneurs who launch startups bring to their ventures specific expertise and what can be a “maniacal” focus, he said.

Small and innovative aren’t necessarily synonymous, though, he added.

Whether a business is small or large, it takes a dedicated effort to develop innovative products and services rather than wait for a “eureka moment” that’s unlikely to occur, McKinney said. “In 30 years, it’s never happened to me.”

He compared the effort to the research and exploration energy companies undertake before deciding where to drill for oil. They’re much more likely to strike oil because of that effort.

McKinney has developed a method he calls FIRE — an acronym for focus, ideation, rank and execution.

The process starts by asking questions that look beyond the obvious and challenge assumptions about the company and its products as well as markets and customers. Some of the best questions ponder why customers don’t like a given product or service. The worst question to pose, he said, asks why a company can’t be more like another, more innovative operation. “Innovation is all about standing out.”

Asking the right questions will generate ideas that then should be ranked in terms of their potential significance. Finally, it’s a matter of pursuing the very best one or two ideas.

Since innovation involves change,  resistance often arises, McKinney said.

In large businesses, “corporate antibodies” comfortable with the status quo can kill great ideas. But it’s possible to turn adversaries into co-conspirators, he added.

In businesses of all sizes, innovation begins with executives and owners who lead by example, McKinney said. Given the importance of innovation, leaders should consider whether or not they devote enough time to thinking about innovation.

McKinney said he remains optimistic about the future given the power of innovation. Human ingenuity and the capacity to solve problems is more than equal to coming crises, he said. The problem, he added, is that humans tend to wait until crises occur rather than taking a more proactive approach.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee the United States will maintain its position as a leader in innovation. The transition from an information economy to a creative economy depends on people coming up with great ideas. And those people can live anywhere, he said.

Educational reforms in the U.S. could help in reducing the emphasis on producing “the world’s greatest test-takers” and promoting instead critical thinking skills that prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, McKinney said.

In addition, students should be granted “permission” to pursue their natural curiosity even as they learn that in real life there’s often more than one correct answer to a given problem.

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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