The other day I happened to be in a meeting with a very innovative high tech startup that I will not mention by name for reasons that will soon become clear. Let’s call them Startup X. I know a fair amount about Startup X’s technology and am convinced their company is going to do great things.  I had come to request an RFP for one of my clients.

We started the meeting with Startup X updating me on the new features they had built – and almost immediately I found myself utterly … lost. In five seconds that felt like five minutes my inner monologue raced along something like this:

What the ??? What’s that acronym? What does this new feature actually do? I have no idea what they are talking about. Should I ask? Will they think I am an idiot?

I put my ego aside, held up my hand and said, simply, “I gotta tell you guys, I have no idea what you just said. Could you try that again and put it in words a ten-year-old can understand?”

They were thrilled!

At the end of the meeting, the Startup X CEO pulled me aside and thanked me for being open with his team. He went on to confess he’d noticed puzzled reactions from one of his most important customers when he’d tried to present the new features. But because they’d said nothing, he didn’t know exactly how to bring the conversation to the right place without possibly embarrassing them. So both parties left the room without knowing whether Startup X’s new features could have been valuable.

The problem for innovators is often that they are so deep into their invention, so well versed in their subject, they can’t imagine what it’s like to hear about it for the first time. So they tell you ever-y-thing.

The problem for enterprises wanting to find the next best great innovation for their organization is that some of the most potentially useful innovations are just disruptive enough to be … strangely hard to understand. And the people in the room don’t ask enough questions because they are afraid they’ll sound stupid.

The importance of open communication to innovation

In their recent article for Harvard Business Review, Leadership May Not Be the Problem with Your Innovation Team, authors Daniel Dworkin and Markus Spiegel reported on the extent to which organizations create conditions that favor successful innovation. Based on their survey of approximately 1500 HBS readers representing organizations across industries at different stages of maturity they teased out four important innovation conditions: constant energy, creative friction, flexible structure, and purposeful discovery.

Looking into some of the underlying factors, I found a couple that really resonated:

“People working together share opinions and ideas openly with one another.”

“People make an effort to understand different perspectives.”

Turns out, according to the survey respondents, neither happens very often.

And if people aren’t communicating well when they’re doing the innovating, I bet it’s not happening when they’re evaluating someone else’s innovation.

7 questions that might sound dumb but are actually very helpful

As someone who evaluates a lot of new technologies, I have learned that active listening is vital. And that means asking questions.

Here are 7 “dumb” questions that I have found useful when looking to understand new innovations:

1.    Help me out – what’s that mean, in English?  (my favorite)

2.    What problem(s) does this solve, or what unmet need does this fill – and who really cares?  Give me an example of a real person having this problem.

3.    What’s really at stake for them beyond the obvious problem / need? Will they die? Lose face? Fail to get the girl (or guy)?

4.    What solutions do you think they are trying today?  What’s wrong with them?

5.    Why is the solution you’re proposing superior? How do you know?

6.    Can you show me a concrete example of how this works?  Lead me through it step by step – pretend I’m the person using it and I’ve no idea what it is.

7.    What’s the simplest way we can try this out?

This is a short list, and I am sure you have many other questions that work for you. The main point I want to make is this:

You have to help the people who are bringing you innovations. And that means having the courage to ask questions.

Especially if you think they might sound dumb.

This post was originally published by the Marketing Executive Networking Group.

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