When tasked with coming up with a new idea or solving a business problem, people from all backgrounds, job roles, and titles turn to the same tool: brainstorming. It's not always an effective method, but many still use it because they haven't seen a better option--until now.
Brainstorming has a much more effective cousin that's not different in practice but is incredibly different in outcome. It's called "questionstorming."
I first learned about questionstorming in my absolute favorite book, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. In it, he shows how some thoughtful, intriguing questions led to innovative and disruptive companies like Netflix, Airbnb, Kodak, and more.
Why brainstorming doesn't work.
Even though it has the word "brain" in its title, it turns out brainstorming isn't well suited to the way the brain ideates. An article in the Harvard Business Review agrees that looking for answers is boring, while generating questions can be exciting and inspiring.
Traditional brainstorming is asking people to come up with answers to a presumed question or problem--but it isn't necessarily the right one. Brainstorming assumes there is one correct answer, and if you present enough solutions eventually you will get there. When people are worried about coming up with an answer, they often hold back for fear of looking stupid if they are "wrong." And some people refrain from putting their good ideas out on the table to avoid being tasked with running the eventual project that might result.
Alternatively, in generating questions, you don't have the same obligation to be "right"-- since the assumption is you don't know the answer. This leads to more interesting opportunities being unearthed. There are only four steps to questionstorming, and after teaching the method to lots of companies and individuals, I can confirm they are easy to master.
1. Start with a statement.
Instead of starting with a question--like, "How can we generate more customers?"--it is important to start with a statement--like, "We need more customers," or "Switching companies is difficult." A great place to start is with those known truths that you all assume to be foundational. Through this process, people often find these to not be true after all.
2. List as many questions as you can.
Now that you have your statement, have the team list out as many questions as possible. This works well in groups of four or five people, but can also be done individually and shared with the group later. One important rule for this phase is that there is no answering of questions allowed. Only questions--no answers.
When I lead this process for teams, I give about 15 minutes for this part and at around the 12-minute mark say, "Now that you think you have listed all the possible questions, every team needs to write at least 10 more." It's amazing how many questions are created with this simple prompt.
3. Open closed questions, and close open ones.
Now that the list of questions is created, each one is tweaked slightly by either opening or closing it. This creates double the questions (or more) and showcases the importance of nuance. A slight change in wording can result in a completely different question, and therefore, a different research project or answer.
For example, if we go back to the "Switching companies is difficult" statement, maybe one of the questions generated was, "How could we make switching easy?"
That is an open question. To change it to a closed question, it could become, "Is switching ever easy?" This is now a yes or no question--and the experience in answering it would be very different.
4. Prioritize and pick your favorites.
Now you have a long list of possible questions from the statement you started with, and lots of reasons to believe it is not necessarily true. Have each member of the team pick three questions they would be interested in learning more about, or that they think would benefit the company to pursue.
This can help you prioritize questions to dig into further. The extra questions created also help you identify areas that are important for future phases, things you do not want included in the project, and can further define what is important now and what is out of scope.