If you want to inspire people at work to create breakthrough thinking, start by asking them innovative questions, like “Why?” “What if…?” “How might we…?”

The story of how Edwin H. Land invented the instant camera began with a question from his 3-year-old while on a family vacation to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His daughter Jennifer asked why she couldn’t see the picture he had just taken without having to wait a week for it to come back from a lab.

Land, although he understood film developing, had no good answer for her. He took her question as a challenge and set out to solve the puzzle. “Why not? What if we could design a picture that can be developed right away?”

This began a series of innovative questions such as,

  • What if you could somehow have a darkroom inside a camera?
  • What if the development chemicals could be contained in little pouches and then spread over the negative somehow?
  • How would you print a positive?
  • How would you configure both negative film and positive paper in the back of the camera?

Four years later, in 1948, Land’s company the Polaroid Corporation launch the first black and white instant camera. But he continued to struggle with other innovative questions such as “How can we do this in color?” and “Why can’t the camera be easier to use?” According to Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: the Story of Polaroid, the Polaroid story is a favorite of innovators because it shows the power of asking questions in the innovative process.

“What If?”

The Polaroid story is a good example of the progression of questions used in breakthrough thinking. This progression starts with an observation of a less-than-ideal situation and the question, “Why does it have to be this way?”

This leads to asking “What if?” questions to trigger ideas. “What if we had the developing chemicals inside the camera?”

And finally, innovative questions need to ask “How might we proceed?” This third step leads to action plans, experimentation, and adjustments.

This framework for innovative questioning looks like this:

  • Why?
  • What if…?
  • How might we…?

I’ve been posting about the importance of questions in a series of posts about leadership through inquiry. This led me to an interesting book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger.

What are your thoughts about this? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.