Random finds (2016, week 27) — On innovation, the power of asking beautiful questions, and solitude

Mark Storm
12 min readJul 10, 2016


Staircase of the Itamaraty Palace, by Oscar Niemeyer (Brasilia, Brazil, 1967)

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

On innovation — from Alexander the Great to elBulli

Already Alexander the Great understood the importance of strategic innovation. As a consequence, his armies held a great competitive advantage. “Because of his deft deployment of troops, his support for and reliance on the creativity of his corps of engineers, and his own logistical acumen, his war machine was the most advanced of its time,” wrote Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change, in 11 Leadership Lessons from Alexander the Great (INSEAD Knowledge, 2014).

Today’s ‘innovation armies’ operate rather differently. They organize themselves in corporate accelerators, innovation labs and accelerators. While they have noble aims and are run with valiant effort, they don’t guarantee that the corporation will succeed in finding a new product or answer to its competitive woes.

So, should companies stop launching accelerator programs? Is this all just hype? According to Falguni Desai, the managing director of Future Asia Ventures, the answer is no. In Innovation Programs Don’t Guarantee Innovation, he writes: “The crux of the dilemma is expectations. Innovation is often thought of as end goal. Corporations in their ‘FOMO’ [fear of missing out] moment, quickly setup these programs, sometimes spending millions of dollars. Executives are hawk-eyed with the expectation that, after funding a few startups or tinkering with new gadgets, product ideas will quickly convert into business lines delivering millions in revenue and shareholder value. But this is often not the case.”

According to Desai, innovation is not a coin operated vending machine, but rather a journey. He sees accelerators and incubators as a first step in that journey. “They open doors to new opportunities, expand networks and create an exchange of ideas. But the journey also requires deep involvement from those responsible for running core businesses. Leadership across all functions needs to be involved in discussing, understanding and experimentation. The innovation team may be the one with daily responsibility for startup engagement, but ultimately the business unit leaders must adopt these new ideas, create new products, test them in the market and launch them. Corporations should deliberately create bridges between these teams and make sure that new ideas are appropriately piloted.”

Hard vs. easy in innovation, Alexander Osterwalder.

In a post on Harvard Business Review, Laurent-Pierre Baculard, who leads the Digital practice at Bain & Company for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, writes that many large companies tend to view innovation and disruption as the result of breakthrough discoveries or technological wonders. “They look at the explosive growth of companies such as WhatsApp or Instagram and assume that true innovation is the realm of digital wonks and ambitious entrepreneurs,” he says.

But WhatsApp’s story is conspicuously free of digital breakthroughs or ‘aha!’ moments. Transforming a relatively simple idea into a $19 billion windfall, it turns out, was more about solving problems with the tools at hand than inventing new solutions from scratch.

Think of it as high concept meets whatever is lying around — an unconventional recombination.

“Examples such as WhatsApp demonstrate that real-world innovation, in many ways, looks like an assembly line. At one end is a customer pain point or a potential new market. At the other is a product or service that solves the problem or addresses the market in a way nobody has thought of before. In between, people sit down and force themselves to examine the problem from a variety of fresh angles. Sometimes they tap the lab and bring a radical new technology to bear. But much more often they reach for pieces of technology that already exist and assemble them with new (or old) capabilities to produce a solution that turns the pain point into a delighted customer.”

Organizations need to practice looking at pain points and opportunities in entirely new ways until it becomes a habit, Baculard believes. This ability is critical and will only become more so as the explosion of digital technology speeds up innovation in the years ahead.

From WhatsApp to elBulli, the Michelin 3-star restaurant near the town of Roses, near Barcelona, in Spain.

In 2011, superstar chef Ferran Adrià shuttered elBulli, marking the end of a remarkable, three-decade run of culinary success. By that time, elBulli were receiving 2 million requests for reservations annually. Moreover, 3,000 or so of the world’s most talented culinary pros were applying for 30 unpaid internships. What accounted for this unprecedented level of demand from foodies and the people who feed them? In Appetite for Innovation: Creativity and Change at elBulli (Columbia University Press, 2016), M. Pilar Opazo, a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, says that it was the “search for radical innovation and endless reinvention.”

According to Theodore Kinni in his review on strategy+business, “Opazo examines elBulli with a sharp sociological eye, creating a detailed case study in what she calls the ‘production of innovation.’ She makes clear the essential role of leadership in the restaurant’s success. As you might expect, Adrià’s vision and charisma — in combination with a chef’s power in the kitchen — are fundamental drivers in the elBulli story. But Adrià doesn’t simply issue dictates. He creates a culture of innovation, with a language and supporting documentation, that unites his staff in pursuit of his interest in ‘not copying,’ but extending the culinary repertoire.”

In his review, Kinni also refers to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor James G. March, who, in the early 90s, explored the need for companies to balance the exploration of new possibilities and the exploitation of old certainties. Ferran Adrià, however, was so obsessed with the exploration that he eventually shut down the exploitation altogether — launching a nonprofit innovation lab. No corporate leader can afford to follow his example that far.

The power of asking beautiful questions

“Recently I had a conversation with a chief executive who expressed concern about several of her senior managers,” Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, writes in The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’. They were smart, experienced, competent, but they weren’t asking enough questions. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing in the business world of a few years ago, where the rules for success were relatively straightforward — know your job, do your work, and if a problem arises, solve it and don’t bother us with a lot of questions. But increasingly Berger is finding that business leaders want the people working around them to be more curious, more cognizant of what they don’t know, and more inquisitive — about everything, including “Why am I doing my job the way I do it?” and “How might our company find new opportunities?”

“I may be hyper-aware of this trend because I think of myself as a ‘questionologist,’ having studied the art of questioning and written a book about it. But I also think there are real forces in business today that are causing people to value curiosity and inquiry more than in the past. Companies in many industries today must contend with rapid change and rising uncertainty. In such conditions, even a well-established company cannot rest on its expertise; there is pressure to keep learning what’s new and anticipating what’s next. It’s hard to do any of that without asking questions.”

Research shows that question-asking peaks at age 4 or 5 and then steadily drops off, as children pass through school (where answers are often more valued than questions) and mature into adults.

“Getting employees to ask more questions is the easy part; getting management to respond well to those questions can be harder. When leaders claim they want ‘everyone to ask more questions,’ I sometimes (in my bolder moments) ask: ‘Do you really want that? And what will you do with those questions once people start asking them?’”

Illustration by Abbey Lossing.

In a recent interview with Drucker on the Dial, Berger talks about the art of asking questions. When asked how leaders can encourage questioning within their company, Berger explains that they should start with making clear that questioning is actually valued. One way of doing this is, is by putting questions out there themselves, and showing openness and even vulnerability by not having all the answers. But too often we hear executives say ‘I don’t want anyone to bring me a question unless they also bring the answer.’ This isn’t a very clever thing to say, far from it, Berger continues, because questions don’t always have immediate answers. You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart, or ‘beautiful’ question as he calls it, to also have the perfect answer. Finding this answer may be something you have to work on as a team or even a company, which may take years.

You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart question to also have the perfect answer.

As a recipe for coming up with better questions, Berger points out we will have to train ourselves to become better observers because questions often come from observation — from listening and paying close attention. We should step back from habitual thinking or even from our daily routines, and look at what we’re doing with a fresh and discerning eye. Often we are just too familiar with the things we do. We take things for granted without questioning why we do it in the first place. Is what we do still relevant? What was the original reason for having this particular process? Does it still hold up today or are we doing something that no longer makes sense? It is extremely hard for people to ask these kind of questions unless you make an extra effort.

People shouldn’t be afraid to ask fundamental questions — questions that sometimes may seem a bit naive. They should also dig deep into their questions and ‘live with them’, as Berger calls it. “Questions are things that we pursue and live with over time. And we get comfortable with the uncertainty [of not knowing] while we are chasing them, in the hope that we will eventually get to an answer.”

And finally, you have to act on your questions. “This is the really important thing that a lot of people don’t do or understand about questioning,” Berger says. “They think it’s like philosophy. That you raise an important question, think about it a while, maybe debate it with someone, and then you move on. But if we’re talking about innovative questioning, you have to act on those questions if you want something to happen.” Innovative questioning often moves from ‘why’, to ‘what if’ to ‘how (do we make it happen)’. “If you are a good effective questioner,” Berger says, “you will have to ask those three questions and follow through.”

Questions often come from observation — from listening and paying close attention.

When asked what Berger’s favorite question is, he brings up the 3 year old daughter of the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Edwin E. Land, who simply asked why she had to wait for the picture? What she was doing, obviously without knowing it, was challenging the assumption (that you had to wait for a picture). Her father than started to think about that question in a different way, and he moved on to ‘what if we did is?’ and ‘how might we do that?’ And eventually he created the instant camera. This example shows that an innocent outsider can sometimes ask a question in a way that reframes reality.”

A bit more …

“If people turn to these devices without thinking during life’s amazing moments, it makes sense that we would do the same during those moments of unintended solitude,” says Scott Campbell, a professor of telecommunication, University of Michigan. “This tendency is exacerbated by the pull of expectations to be accessible anytime and anywhere. I am not arguing that everyone needs more solitude in their life. However, with unintentional solitude no longer mandatory, it might be a good idea for us to direct more thought into intentionally carving out times, places, and activities for being alone, not just in the realm of atoms and molecules, but in the realm of bits and bytes as well.”

“In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation.” — MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation

Read on Quartz: http://qz.com/722361/the-importance-of-being-alone-in-the-digital-era.

In Why we no longer trust the experts, Gillian Tett writes that “citizens of the cyber world no longer have much faith in anything that experts say, not just in the political sphere but in numerous others too. At a time when we increasingly rely on crowd-sourced advice rather than official experts to choose a restaurant, healthcare and holidays, it seems strange to expect voters to listen to official experts when it comes to politics.”

“The rise of ‘a person like me’ has given birth to a ‘post-truth’ era, where comforting narratives and familiar messengers beat fact and argument,” points out Nick Barron, an Edelman executive. “Social echo chambers prevent effective scrutiny of individuals, organisations and campaigns that we think are on the ‘right side’ of an argument . . . ‘My truth’, ‘our truth’ and ‘the truth I feel’ beat ‘objective truth.’”

Read in Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/24035fc2-3e45-11e6-9f2c-36b487ebd80a.html#axzz4DRii1aTB.

“Nearly two and a half millennia ago, Aristotle triggered a revolution in happiness,” Will Storr writes in A Better Kind of Happiness. “At the time, Greek philosophers were trying hard to define precisely what this state of being was. Some contended that it sprang from hedonism, the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Others argued from the perspective of tragedy, believing happiness to be a goal, a final destination that made the drudge of life worthwhile. These ideas are still with us today, of course, in the decadence of Instagram and gourmet-burger culture or the Christian notion of heaven. But Aristotle proposed a third option. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he described the idea of ‘eudaemonic happiness,’ which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice.”

Illustration by Peter Ankle.

Discoveries in the field of social genomics may confirm a theory of well-being that is almost as old as Western civilization.

But what, precisely, do we mean when we talk about eudaemonia? For Aristotle, it required a combination of rationality and ‘arete’ — a kind of virtue, although that concept has since been polluted by Christian moralizing, according to Storr. “It did mean goodness, but it was also about pursuing excellence,” says Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “For Usain Bolt, some of the training it takes to be a great athlete is not pleasurable, but fulfilling your purpose as a great runner brings happiness.” Barbara Fredrickson, a noted positive psychologist from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, meanwhile, believes that a key facet of eudaemonia is connection. “It refers to those aspects of well-being that transcend immediate self-gratification and connect people to something larger,” she said. But Steve Cole, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that connectedness doesn’t appear to be an absolute precondition. “It seems unlikely that Usain Bolt is doing what he does to benefit humanity in any simply pro-social sense,” he said. “If that’s the case, is eudaemonic well-being mostly about the stretched goal, doing something you personally think is amazing or important? Or does it involve something more around pro-social behavior?” For Cole, the question remains open.

Read in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/a-better-kind-of-happiness.

“Everything we make in this world follows the same process,” writes Alan Moore, author of Do Design. Why beauty is key to everything. “We must think it, imagine it, dream it, then we make it. Everything is designed. And if everything is designed then we have the opportunity to make it beautiful, restorative, engaging, valuable and meaningful. We all need something to believe in so why not make it with beauty and grace.”

Read on Medium: https://medium.com/@alansmlxl/crafting-a-beautiful-business-449923c7c729#.6y4oisycx.

In the wake of the UK’s Brexit, Kenneth Mikkelsen, author of the forthcoming book The Neo-Generalist (co-authored with Richard Martin), writes in his excellent post Reawakening Idealism:

“It is striking how many of the world’s problems are created by leaders who lost their way and fail to live up to basic idealistic principles. Somehow idealism is perceived as weakness in current times and not as a sign of courage or integrity.”

“In current times we need idealists to steward the conversation about the society we want to live in rather than leaving it up to greedy lobbyists, opportunistic politicians and reductionistic fortune tellers to set the direction.”

Read on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/reawakening-idealism-kenneth-mikkelsen.

“Curiosity about the unknown, exposure to the ideas and discoveries of others, its fusion with or replacement of the already known. This is what pulls us forward.” — Richard Martin in Expertise



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought