Companies these days try everything and anything when it comes to wanting to make both teams and individual contributors  more creative on the job.

Yet research continuously indicates that what makes one person or team highly innovative may not work for you or your team. Captivating headlines might get readers, but they don't express transparency around the fact that propelling creativity is an incredibly complex and mixed bag: you can't be too sure of what it is you're going to get.

What works for one person may not work for another. Simply diving into the research behind many of the popular creativity-empowering articles on the web makes this point clear.

Painting office walls bright colors might help instill a sense of creative wonder in you and your team, but it also might not. The same is true for drinking coffee, waking up earlier to exercise, playing music or static background noise, making whiteboards accessible from anywhere, creative office layouts, unlimited vacation policies, flexible office hours, and anything else you may have read about what it takes to inspire creativity.

You can of course try everything suggested in what you read, and you might land on something that works as a result. But that method is a gamble and can cost you or your business thousands of dollars

If you really want to fuel creativity in your job or your team, consider one simple and highly effective tweak to how you work: encourage more question asking.

 

While environmental and contextual changes to your workplace or processes might invoke creativity, introducing more questions into how you work is guaranteed to help expose things you are likely to otherwise overlook or not consider. And it's that point which might help lead you toward more innovative ideas for not only what you work on, but how you work.

The magic of questions is of course their ability to leave our perspective ties to what's possible as opposed to what we think, or want to believe, is right and true.

Annie Murphy Paul, author of the upcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart writes:

"Cognitive scientists note that teachers--along with parents, manager, and leaders of all kinds--are often so eager to get the answer that we do not devote sufficient one to developing the question...yet it's the question that stimulates curiosity....Instead of starting with an answer, pose an interesting question, one that opens an information gap."

The information gap is the hole in your knowledge that is so deeply hidden you might not know what you don't know.

While buzzing fans, open office spaces, caffeine, and brightly colored walls might energize you to think creatively, they do little to expose gaps in your thinking.

Questions, on the other hand, help reveal insights you didn't even know you needed. But that's only true if you're asking the right types of questions. What questions should you be asking more of during your day?

In his book Beyond the Obvious author Phil McKinney explains that the best questions are not factual in format:

"The objective of a factual question is to get information: 'Do you want coffee or tea?' 'How many units did we sell last week?' 'Is there gas in the car?' ...there is no real discovery required behind expressing your opinion, making a call, or looking at the gas gauge...they are limited in their ability to do anything more nuanced than gather information."

Information seeking questions are good at moving existing information down a line--reporting on metrics in order to make decisions, for example. But they do little to expose new ideas or insights. McKinney goes on to explain why we should instead focus on investigative questions to uncover new ideas:

"An investigative question cannot be answered with a yes or no and is much more useful...By definition, it is a divergent question, meaning that there is more than one correct answer. It cannot be answered with one phone call, or a quick check at some stats or figures, and forces us to investigate all of the possibilities."

What types of questions are investigative? As McKinney explains, they're the questions that don't have a simple, right or wrong, answer. Questions like:

  • How would I react if the work scope was magnified 100x?
  • What would work better if half my constraints were removed?
  • Is there anything that would improve if I added double the constraints?
  • Why do we do things this way?

Learning to ask more investigative questions around your work is the most reliable way to invoke creative thinking and lead to innovative insights in your work.

Published on: Jul 28, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.