Better Questions on Top of Better Questions

Once I was leading a brainstorming group for a major computer manufacturer, and we were exploring better phone support for their consumer pC line. As you may understand, computers sold to people in business are acquired by a central purchaser (IT, MIS, whatever) who is computer-savvy and purchases thousands of units. In offering phone support for such people, you can speak their language. But in offering phone support for home users, you have to take a different approach. We were well into the brainstorming session and coming up with hundreds of ideas, some of them quite good, when someone asked, "How about if we assume the person at the other end of the line is five years old? Wouldn't that cause us to make different assumptions and approach this phone support differently?" Well, let me tell you, a lot of people's eyes lit up. Yes! Because the people calling for support on home computers are not sophisticated, let's assume they're five years old. (This was around 1995 when the PC market was in steep growth.) But a few minutes later someone else said, "Wait a minute. Aren't kids coming out of the womb pointing and clicking? Maybe we don't assume the people on the other end of the line are five years old. Maybe we assume they're 75 years old. Because aren't those the techno-phobes?" (I'm not sure they still are, but back then this group had not yet embraced the computer. Today, I believe, it's one of the growing categories of home PC sales.)

Asking a better question, then asking an even better question, led to some much better answers.

You can ask a better question at any point in time, at any point in the creative process. Of course, I prefer starting at a better place.

In fact, if you think about it, it's an instant lobotomy: If you are using the part of the brain that thinks about socks as paisley, argyle, and all the usual suspects and thinks about tennis shoes as arch support, padding, traction, and all the usual comfort things, then asking a better question will put you in a place where you don't have the answer. What's a highly unusual design? I don't know. How far does somebody run? I don't know. When you put yourself in that place, you loboto-mize yourself and put yourself in a place of wonder—that place where wonderful things happen.

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