I recently heard Google’s Charles Warren tell a story about Irish Spring, a deodorant soap launched by Colgate Palmolive in 1972. With its double green stripe and two deodorants, it took the market by storm, instantly becoming a billion dollar brand and stunning Proctor and Gamble, which was used to dominating the category.
What did P & G do? They immediately went to work creating their own green striped soap. Then Min Basadur showed up. The soft-spoken Canadian, creator of the Simplex process and author of The Power of Innovation, asked P & G why they were working on creating another soap with two green stripes inside. Unsatisfied with an answer that was simply about beating Irish Spring at the green game, Basadur got P & G to think about asking better questions and taught them a process of innovating that starts with “How might we?”
That led to a series of How Might We questions. How might we grow P & G revenues? How might we make a better soap? How might we make a soap that’s more refreshing? The latter was something the team could actually do and so the process continued. “How might we make a more refreshing soap?” With a menthol sensation? The scent of gin and tonic? The imagery and color of the beach? The beach won out and the marketing giant introduced Coast, its answer to Irish Spring. Granted it wasn’t as successful as its nemesis, but it was arguably a better solution than another green striped deodorant bar.
Today, HMW remains a powerful way to start the problem solving process. It’s practiced at Google and Ideo, arguably two of the most innovative companies in the world. And it’s a reminder to those of us who’d like to be as innovative that we should start by asking better questions.
In a 2009 interview, Tim Brown, Ideo’s president and CEO, told New York Times reporter Adam Bryant that, “In business it’s easy to be reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you.” He went on to remind readers how that’s a trap. The big trick to being a successful designer (of anything) is to ask the right questions and focus on the right problems.
Author and lecturer Warren Berger, who wrote Glimmer, How Design Can Change Your Life and Maybe Even the World, concluded that one of the qualities that distinguishes the world’s leading designers and innovators is that they are masters at asking questions.
In fact Berger is now at work on a new book about the value of inquiry. Calling it A More Beautiful Question, he suggests that, we all need to be in the habit of stepping back and questioning everything—about our career choices, about our attitudes and beliefs, about the ways we choose to live. Questioning is good for us. It can help to open up new possibilities in our lives. It’s a first step in solving problems. It makes us more successful as leaders.”
All of us spend time looking for answers and solving problems. After a day with the folks at Google and a recent encounter with Warren Berger, I wonder if we should spend more time thinking about the questions. Might save us from putting all of our energy and talent into another striped soap that no one really needs.