We are always told to be good listeners. Our moms and grade school teachers often told us to “shush and listen.” And as adults, as many of us think we are good listeners as we think are good drivers. (By the way, that’s a lot more than 50%, leading to an irrational conclusion.)
Active listening is more than just hearing what someone says. Listening involves silencing our own thoughts and opinions, connecting empathetically with the speaker, and providing feedback. The best way to provide feedback and to gauge if you really, truly understand what someone has said is through questioning. I’ve observed that there are two general forms of questions: transactional queries and questions for reflection.
In a market economy, we exchange money for a product. Just as in a commercial exchange, conversation and dialogue can be transactional. If there are multiple product choices with comparable features and functions, a rational consumer selects the least expensive product. The decision is based on logic and the transaction is designed to minimize time, effort, and resources.
Some conversations are transactional in nature and should be. “What time does the meeting start?” and “Where is the restaurant?” are responsible transactional questions that allow us to increase our efficiency and productivity. The responses are typically used to complete the exchange, just as handing money to a cashier completes the purchase. “The meeting starts at 10 am” and “The restaurant is at 123 Main Street”.
We use transactional queries to obtain data. Remember that data and information are different. Information allows us to make decisions, create opportunities, and to expand our knowledge of a given situation. In a transactional conversation, we exchange impersonal data and the individuals may translate that data to information on their own.
For example, if I know that the meeting starts at 10 am and is held at a restaurant on Main Street (data), I will plan to leave my office at 9 am since I also know it is a one-hour drive. Converting the transactional conversation to information also tells me that I need to take dimes and quarters with me to put in the parking meters on Main Street.
While my decision to leave at 9 am and carry small change with me is not necessarily creative, it does explain another level of communication. Questions for reflection use “right-brain” thinking to analyze the conversational feedback, to draw conclusions, and to offer alternatives. For instance, I could have countered the restaurant location with a suggestion to meet at a different place that allows me to take a shorter drive.
It is through questions for reflection that we build creativity. Innovation is enhanced when we look at things from a different perspective and try to envision a unique outcome. Transactional queries normally limit the participants from seeing alternatives but can support incremental improvements and operational efficiencies.
Leadership Questioning Skills
How do you know if you’re asking transactional or reflective questions? As an innovation leader, you want to drive creativity and encourage alternatives in new product development (NPD). You want to empower your team to listen and to learn.
Transactional questions, potentially hindering radical innovation, are easily rephrased to “yes” or “no” inquiries. We could easily have said “Is the meeting at 10 am?” instead of asking what time the meeting is scheduled. This gives us a strong clue that the question is purely transactional.
Another indication is that the response to a transactional query is quick. The meeting time is known so there’s no hesitation in providing the answer to the question. At most, people will need to check their calendars to confirm the data.
On the other hand, reflective questions introduce a pause in the pace of the conversation. A person has to stop and think about how s/he might respond. The response provides information and not just data. And, information allows us to take on different perspectives and to generate alternative solutions. An indication that a question is designed for reflection is that a “yes” or “no” answer would be totally inappropriate.
Creativity is driven by viewing problems from different perspectives. Those viewpoints should include all potential stakeholders, including designers and developers, functional organizational representatives, customers, and end-users. Understanding the entire ecosystem of innovation lays out the scope of a new product development effort.
Customers and Open Innovation
When customers are involved in innovation, we call it open innovation. While customers cannot tell us what features and specifications they want in a new product, they can answer our questions and we gather both data and information. It’s important, however, to focus customer interactions on qualitative data, such as that gathered through reflective questions. Market research and open innovation are driven by understanding and empathizing with customer needs. And only when this information is collated, can a development team go into the labs and pilot plants to design a new product or service.
While questions for reflections are best used in gathering customer impressions and feedback, there is a place in innovation for transactional questions. Of course, these are often limited to setting pricing parameters and in A/B market testing. You’ll also want to collect and analyze demographic and geographic data about potential customers since this can frame future marketing efforts.
Questioning for Innovation Leaders
Leaders set the tone for the culture and climate of an organization. Restrictive, distrustful environments hamper creativity and are often characterized by strict boundaries and constraints. In these situations, questions are largely transactional. Managers are tracking directives for scope, budget, and schedule metrics.
In open, creative cultures, leaders provide freedom and autonomy for innovation teams. Questions seek knowledge building and deeper understanding. Open-ended questions without right or wrong answers can stimulate perspective-taking and novel approaches to solving problems. Involving customers and end-users in creative questioning can improve innovation exponentially.
Summary and Learn More
Learning to ask good questions and to fully listen to the response are skills that can be honed and grown through training and coaching. We can each practice creative leadership questioning by converting transactional queries into questions for reflection.
I am inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching to build innovation leaders. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. I am an experienced professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or area code 281 + phone 280-8717 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.