Innovation: The Significance of the First Question

Innovation is the art of business. It is the part of business that is the expression of creativity and imagination, with intellect and boldness.

By our definition, innovation doesn’t occur during the development stage of a project or process. It comes before the creation of the problem statement or a scope of work, before a project name has been given or tasks assigned, before ‘it’ has formed.

The innovation’s beginning is that itch, knowing there is a better way when needs of a community are not being met. Innovation offers real, game changing opportunities for organizations and their communities.

The catalyst of innovation is not the strong and loud leader, but the simple question.

Coming from a more metaphorical perspective, the question is the ability to see pieces of the chasm between knowledge and desire. But how often do we think about innovation as a process starting with the “first right” question?

It’s the seed of many questions that form a solution. It’s the first shot in the dark. Why don’t we reward those who attempt to speak words out into the abyss? I subscribe to the idea that seeing the chasm and asking the “first right” question is the beginning of innovation.

For a business organization, innovation is the highest level of commitment from its employees. An employer can expect an employee to work hard to follow processes and procedures, and even adhere to culture. But what isn’t included in the job description?

  • Ensuring instincts are engaged and shared,
  • Looking for facts that are deeper than those presented,
  • Reengaging settled issues that have newly discovered flaws, but most importantly,
  • Being courageous enough to be wrong in team settings.

Although we discuss innovation as an intellectual by-product of good management, it’s not that simple. Embedded innovation cannot be bought. It is earned. In some ways it’s off-putting, but organizational innovation in organizations is not planned in management meetings, it is expected.

In many ways, every organization is like a social group dance, with its own tempo, interrelatedness, and hierarchy. Ideally, there is a leader that initiates the first movement. The movement is not too forceful or demanding, but suggesting.

The followers are willing partners rather than reluctant participants. Everyone hears the same music. Whether the expression of the dance is graceful or stiff depends on the culture. At some point a member will step differently. The team is still on beat. The movement is still rhythmic and intact.

The member dancing a different step has trust in the group enough to share their creativity. It’s a little improvisation, while still keeping rhythm. Offering trust is like moving into the unknown and willingly falling into the darkness.

For a few moments the member is exposing their connectedness, trust, and openness. That improvisation is the ‘first’ question. The step is now noticed.

What happens next? The options are to kill expression by reinforcing the sameness, thus changing the member, or embracing and nurturing the expression.

The dark reality is that most environments and organizations are not lights of innovation.

There are few leaders that risk being vulnerable to make the mistakes needed to earn trust. Likewise, it’s tough connecting to damaged people. Whether through prior work relations or social media, the idea is enforced that you either “fool or be fooled.” It’s a conundrum.

Why would you expose yourself to embarrassment from an organization that doesn’t care or a person that doesn’t appear vested?

But there is an answer.

Practice confidence building exercises. Embrace the fact that no one has the answer and that exploration takes time. Innovation is the process of building on questions, redirection and corrections, over-corrections, and re-corrections.

But the “first” question is critical. The first question awakens the bright minds around the table to the solutions. In truth, the first question sets direction and crystallizes ideas.

For some, this innovation stuff is hyperbole, but the idea of innovation should be the standard organic material in all organizations. The ability to seek questions, pause and consider is an indicator of the organization’s innovative inclination. Every organization is in some state of change, either growing, stagnating, or declining. Everyday questions present opportunities to be innovative.

Are you willing to step into the darkness and ask the first question?

Aaron Copeland

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Entrepreneur and forward-thinking community advocate with 20+ years of experience in education and mental health services.

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Aaron Copeland

Aaron Copeland

Entrepreneur and forward-thinking community advocate with 20+ years of experience in education and mental health services.

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