I ran a training course recently on Creative Thinking. In the afternoon we got to practical work. Our plan was for delegates to use the techniques they’d learned in the morning to solve some real-life problems in the afternoon. Step one was to share challenges.
There was a range of issues, mainly related to turning customer and market insights into ideas that would create value in the business: How to use insight to create a new product? How to prioritise the development of new propositions? How to influence senior management strategic decision-making with insight?
Last to share was Rob. ‘I’ve got a question which is much more personal to me,’ he said.
‘That’s fine,’ I said. ‘We can apply the same creative thinking techniques to personal and business situations.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘My question is: what’s my next job going to be? I’d like to do some creative thinking about that.’
We spent the next 10 minutes or so discussing this as an issue. Some others in the group felt motivated to think about their next jobs too. How could their new capability in creative thinking help answer this question? The answer was it couldn’t.
It doesn’t matter how well you understand the creative process, how creatively you think, or which creative thinking techniques you apply. You can’t answer a question if it isn’t a good question.
Four or five years ago a friend of mine confided in me that he wanted to change jobs. He was keen to move from business to catering, with ideas about ditching the corporate world and setting up a café. He asked for my advice.
‘Why do you want to make this move?’ I asked.
‘I like cooking. I’d like to be doing something I enjoy more. I’d like to fill my days with something I feel passionate about.’
‘Have you ever cooked in a commercial setting?’
‘What do you think it might be like?’
‘Hmm. I guess long hours, quite pressured…’ he laughed.
‘Rather than thinking about catering as the destination, maybe we should ask a better question: what’s wrong with the job you have now?’
By answering this question, really understanding the problem, we were able to think more creatively about the solution. There was a lot of good stuff about his current job: the people, the company, the type of work he was doing. The problem wasn’t the content of his work, it was the lack of space that work left in the rest of his life. As a result of an intense five+ day week including long hours, he didn’t have the time or energy to follow his passion: food. He didn’t so much actually want to work in food as to have time to cook, to make and express himself creatively.
‘Can you work fewer hours in the job you have?’
‘I’ve never thought about it,’ he said.
‘Can you ask?’
He could and he did. Within a matter of weeks he’d moved down to four days from five. He was a valuable member of the team. His company knew he was clever, capable and committed. Of course it made sense to give him the balance he craved.
So rather than a new career in catering which may have turned a passion into a job, he has a career he enjoys with a day a week to play with food under no pressure. He invents, bakes for friends, family and the community, and blogs about food. His problem was solved, relatively simply, and without radical transformation.
The important thing is that we asked the right questions. Not: What do you want to do next? But: What is the problem you are trying to solve?
A vague question gives no useful answer. A precise question can provide multiple, practically useful solutions.
As with life and career, so in business decisions. A lack of precision in identifying and understanding the problem leads to the asking of vague questions. Hardly surprising that ideas generated in response then lack precision. Not surprising at all that the answers are often wrong.
If you want successful, creative outcomes? Start by asking the right questions.