“If you think as a leader you can and should have all the answers, then you’re both wrong and significantly constraining the capacity of the organization to be creative.”
—IDEO CEO Tim Brown
In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard sat down with IDEO CEO Tim Brown for a conversation on Tim’s evolving thoughts on creative leadership and his focus on asking better questions.
As Tim Brown says, old school models of leadership are not enough anymore. Top-down mandates and telling people what to do doesn’t lead to the creativity and innovation that allows modern companies to make an impact. Instead, leadership is about generating, embracing, and executing bold ideas—“even when the path is not clear.” And that all starts with asking questions.
Why Questions Matter
“If you think as a leader you can and should have all the answers, then you’re both wrong and significantly constraining the capacity of the organization to be creative,” Tim says. Even worse, if you’re waiting for teams to come to you for answers and decisions, you’re leading them down a path that’s neither productive nor creative enough. Instead, it’s your job to ask the right questions, to help teams frame the challenge they’re designing for, and make sure they’re considering the end user and their needs. “Not only does it stop you from assuming you have to have the answer, it leaves the space for the individual or team you’re working with to express their own creativity and their own innovation,” he says.
You can also use questions to encourage your teams to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “The thing that teams are often the least good at is knowing how ambitious to be, or even knowing where to look,” Tim says. “And what you do have as a leader is perspective. So if you’re thoughtful and can offer the right kinds of questions, then you can help teams look in the right place, and offer them the right perspective. And that’s a very powerful form of leadership.”
“The best leaders are not coming up with answers, they are coming up with great questions.”
Coming Up With the Right Questions
For Tim, there’s nothing less stimulating than trying to brainstorm alone with a blank sheet of paper. Questions and curiosity come from conversations, new contexts, and getting out into the world. He continually asks himself, what are the implications of what I’m seeing and what I’m learning? “The deeper you go, the less obvious question you get to, the more likely the idea that ultimately results is going to be more creative,” he says. “One of the things we’re trying to do when we design is reveal needs that should be met. They’re never obvious. In order to dig down far enough to understand people and their interactions, you have to keep asking why.”
When you’re guiding a team, the questions you ask need to meet what Tim calls the Goldilocks principle. They should allow enough scope for surprising, unexpected, creative exploration, and define a space that’s manageable to explore and tangible, he says. If your question forces you to stay abstract, it’s a bit too high level. Or if the question is too low-level, you’re unlikely to get to anything significant, it won’t be inspiring for your team, and progress is likely to be incremental. The question should include who you want to serve, and the impact you want to make, but should never hint at a solution. Your goal is to get the team to come back with things you didn’t expect.
Tips and Tricks
State the Question First
If you’re presenting to a leadership team or key stakeholders, put the question you’re trying to answer at the beginning of any sort of presentation. “Leaders spend so much time processing enormous amounts of information, if you don’t let them know within the first minute what the question is that you’re trying to solve for, and that you want their input on, you’ve already lost them.”
Use Questions as a Tool to Help Others Think Differently
In design school, students used to pin all of their work on a wall, and have their peers and professors criticize it. It’s a frightening exercise, Tim says, but one that taught him the importance of questions like, how did you think about this, or how did you get to your solution? In an organization, the same concept is a great chance to be non-hierarchical, and to frame questions that can cause the team to look differently at their own ideas—“which is always more effective than telling someone their idea is too small.” If your intuition is that a solution is too narrow, then ask if a team considered another group of users, or what an idea might mean for the international market. If it’s too big, ask them to consider a problem that’s only a tenth of the size of the one you’re looking at.
“There’s a very close relationship between asking questions and curiosity. They’re two sides of the same coin.”
According to Tim, one of the most important things to remember is that the last thing people want to hear is that you don’t like their idea, or that you think you have a better one. “Many of the colleagues who I respect most and love working with are really good at asking me questions that get me to think differently, in a way that’s not combative, nor do they bow to a sense of hierarchy. These are peer-level, intellectually stimulating, insightful questions.”
A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger
Powers of Ten by Charles & Ray Eames
Learn the skills and mindsets of creative leadership from CEO of IDEO Tim Brown in his online course Leading for Creativity.