Imagine you're a leader, and you want your team to accomplish ambitious goals. (Maybe you don't have to imagine.) There are three basic questions you can ask at the outset.

All three questions seem very similar at first. But, the most innovative teams at some of the world's most successful companies (among them, Facebook and Google) encourage people to use one construction out of the three--and to abandon the others.

Here are the possibilities. Can you guess which is the one highly successful creative teams use, and why?

  • Can we do this?
  • Should we do this?
  • How might we do this?

The first two questions are the ones people are inclined to ask. However, the winner--the one espoused by the most successful teams--is the third one on the list: "How might we...?"

What makes this phrase outshine the other two? Granted, the semantics are subtle. But asking "How might we...?" instead of the other constructions sends important implicit messages to a team: encouraging creativity by removing doubt. We analyze the impact by breaking down the effect of each word individually:

  • How: Gives the team implicit permission to defer judgment as to whether the goal is possible ("can") or worthwhile ("should"). Instead, the team members focus their mental energy for the moment, and think about how the goal might be accomplished.
  • Might: This powerful word accepts ambiguity and the possibility of failure. It gives the team implicit permission to suggest solutions that might not work out, because execution isn't an issue at this early moment. But it also suggests that there is a solution, out there somewhere.
  • We: Two simple letters, but everything about them implies teamwork and togetherness. We might be a daunting problem, but this phrasing reinforces that we will solve it together.

Clean as a whistle.

Granted, if the "How might we?" method sidesteps the questions of whether an idea is possible or worthwhile, then of course you will have to examine those questions thoroughly at a later stage. But temporarily removing "can" and "should" roadblocks usually spurs creative thought, according to proponents of the "How might we?" method, like business consultant Min Basadur.

Further, once you have good, creative answers to the "how" question, you'll be better able to answer the important "might we?" and "should we?" questions effectively.

Basadur, who explained the "How might we?" method to Harvard Business Review, says he came up with it during his days as a creative manager at Procter & Gamble more than four decades ago. He was involved with a team that was trying to come up with a competitor to Irish Spring soap--a runaway hit product for Colgate-Palmolive in the mid-1970s.

(Irish Spring was known for its green-white stripes and its "clean as a whistle" ad campaign. Yes, that all seems terribly dated now, but it was a huge success at the time.) From HBR:

"P&G had already tested a half-dozen of its own copycat green-stripe bars, though none could best Irish Spring. Basadur figured the P&G team was asking the wrong question ("How can we make a better green-stripe bar?"), and soon had them asking a series of more ambitious HMW questions, culminating with: 'How might we create a more refreshing soap of our own?'

"That opened the creative floodgates and, over the next few hours, Basadur says, there were hundreds of ideas generated for possible refreshment bars -- with the team eventually converging around a theme of finding refreshment at the seacoast. And out of that came a coastal blue-and-white striped bar named (what else?) Coast, which became a highly successful brand in its own right.

There was a bit more to the "How might we?" method than just the three words, Basadur concedes (see below), but it got the team on track in a morning--after six months of false starts. It also steered them away from asking the wrong questions (for example, "How can we duplicate our competitor's product?"), and instead focused them on solving the real customer problem in a creative way.

Facebook, Google, IDEO, and you.

From P&G, Basadur moved on to other companies, and his method spread as well: first to the tech firm Scient, and then to the design firm, IDEO. (IDEO trumpets the "How might we?" method as one of its firm strengths even many years later, as evidenced by its recent write-up in Quartz.)

A Scient designer named Charles Warren moved to IDEO, and ultimately to Google, and took the "How might we?" method with him. At Google, Warren worked on the method with a colleague named Paul Adams, who later become global head of brand design at Facebook--and took the method to that company as well.

Basadur says "How might we?" is actually the third step in an eight-step problem-solving process that he teaches. We're assuming in this exercise that you've already done steps one and two, which involve identifying your problem or challenge and gathering facts. However, the "can we?" and "should we?" questions are supposed to be addressed at a much later step in the process.

Unfortunately, most teams get stuck on an out-of-order experience--going from identifying the problem to trying immediately to identify solutions. It's what had happened to the Proctor & Gamble team, Basadur told Business Insider.

"I didn't know anything about soap bars. But I just knew how to count," he said, meaning encouraging P&G to address each of the eight steps in order.

So the questions: "Can you employ this odd method, too?" and "Should you?" Forget those questions for now. Instead: How might your team put this method into practice?

Published on: Jul 20, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.