QuestionStorming – Framing The Problem

In his book The Myths of Innovation (see my review), Scott Berkun highlights the importance of framing problems creatively. Finding the right problem is as important–if not more important–as coming up with a solution quickly. Berkun writes:

Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions. There are many ways to look at any problem, and realizing a problem is often the first step toward a creative solution. To paraphrase John Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, a properly defined problem is partially solved. (p. 128)

The start of innovation, then, shouldn’t begin with the search of the perfect solution, rather with the search for the right problem.

With this in mind, I was happy to come across an innovation technique called QuestionStorming in the recent book The Innovator’s DNA.

QuestionStorming can be traced back before that book. Jon Roland wrote about what he calls “Questorming” back in 1985. His method is available online. He writes:

Its aim is not so much to get a group to come up with “solutions” to a “problem” as to come up with well-stated and well-selected questions or problem formulations. In one sense it addresses the process leading up to what is done in more conventional brainstorming: formulating the problem to be solved by the group.

This directly recalls Berkun. More importantly, QuestionStorming offers a concrete approach to getting to the right problem.

The technique is fairly simple and can be described in 5 steps:

  1. Have a group of people start asking questions and write them down one-by-one. It’s important to not start a new question until the previous one has been recorded.
  2. As in brainstorming, refrain from judging, censoring, or discussing the questions as you collect them. The goal is to go for volume.
  3. The authors of The Innovator’s DNA suggest a goal of 50 questions. After that mark is reached, you can end the QuestionStorming.
  4. Group the questions by type. Common types are
    • What is? – These questions focus on facts and as-is situation
    • What caused? – These questions get at the root of a problem
    • Why? Why Not? – This type reflects the rationale behind a given problem space.
    • What if? – These are the questions that point to a different future and lead to real innovation.

5. Prioritize the questions and pick the most relevant ones to discuss and develop further.

The authors of The Innovator’s DNA conclude:
If disruptive innovators occupied the same room, they would fill the empty space with thought-provoking questions. Why? Because questioning is how they do their work…Innovators ask lots of questions to better understand what is and what might be.
So, when your colleagues and team members jump right into coming up with a solution, check that they’ve been asking the right questions first. QuestionStorming is a simple approach that can be done in the matter of an hour or two.
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About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Success at MURAL

10 comments

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  4. Ran Liron

    Grate UX practice.
    10x!

  5. Defining the exact need usually leads to the right solution. Skipping this stage is a “Shot in the leg”

  6. I recently read another Blob past that discussed the concept of innovation being an argument – like an “If/then” argument or statement. The idea is similar to your own, yet less complete in depth. The Questionstorming is based on the concept of questioning the status quo or revealing the full state of being disatisfied with the current condition as it is. (“Full state” implies more than concern a., but is the list of concerns.) I like your reflection on the concept of gathering all questions. To often pertinent details are missed because people want to begin to focus on the solution before the gap analysis is complete on the focused concern.

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