The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use

How do Google, Facebook and jumpstart the process that leads to innovation? Often by using the same three words: How Might We. Some of the most successful companies in business today are known for tackling difficult challenges by first asking, How might we improve X … or completely re-imagine Y… or find a new way to accomplish Z?

It’s not complicated: The “how might we” approach to innovation ensures that would-be innovators are asking the right questions and using the best wording. Proponents of this increasingly popular practice say it’s surprisingly effective — and that it can be seen as a testament to the power of language in helping to spark creative thinking and freewheeling collaboration.

When people within companies try to innovate, they often talk about the challenges they’re facing by using language that can inhibit creativity instead of encouraging it, says the business consultant Min , who has taught the How Might We (HMW) form of questioning to companies over the past four decades. “People may start out asking, ‘How can we do this,’ or ‘How should we do that?,'” explained to me. “But as soon as you start using words like can and should, you’re implying judgment: Can we really do it? And should we?” By substituting the word might, he says, “you’re able to defer judgment, which helps people to create options more freely, and opens up more possibilities.”

Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, says that when his company takes on a design challenge of almost any type — and IDEO does everything from designing new products to envisioning new ways to deliver healthcare — it invariably starts by asking How Might We. Brown observes that within the phrase, each of those three words plays a role in spurring creative problem solving. “The ‘how’ part assumes there are solutions out there — it provides creative confidence,” Brown said to me “‘Might’ says we can put ideas out there that might work or might not — either way, it’s OK. And the ‘we’ part says we’re going to do it together and build on each other’s ideas.”

Although the HMW process has been used at IDEO for a number of years, its origins can be traced back to Basadur and his early days as a creative manager at Procter & Gamble. In the early-1970s, the company’s marketers were working themselves into a lather as they tried to compete with Colgate-Palmolive’s popular new soap product, Irish Spring, which featured a green stripe and an appealing “refreshment” promise.

By the time Basadur was asked to help out on the project, P&G had already tested a half-dozen of its own copycat green-stripe bars, though none could best Irish Spring. Basadur figured the P&G team was asking the wrong question (“How can we make a better green-stripe bar?”) and soon had them asking a series of more ambitious HMW questions, culminating with: “How might we create a more refreshing soap of our own?”

That opened the creative floodgates and, over the next few hours, Basadur says, there were hundreds of ideas generated for possible refreshment bars — with the team eventually converging around a theme of finding refreshment at the seacoast. And out of that came a coastal-blue and white striped bar named (what else?) Coast, which became a highly successful brand in its own right.

As the Coast story suggests, there’s more to HMW methodology than just using those three words. Basadur employed a larger process to guide people toward asking the right HMW questions. This involved posing a number of “why” questions, as in, Why are we trying so hard to make another green-striped soap?. He also urged the P&G team to step back from their obsession with a competitor’s product and try to look at the situation from a consumer perspective: For the customer, in the end, it wasn’t about green stripes, it was about feeling refreshed.

Gradually, Basadur took the HMW approach beyond P&G to other companies, including the tech firm Scient. One of his converts at Scient, the designer Charles Warren, then proceeded to take the methodology with him as he moved to IDEO. Tim Brown confesses that, when first introduced to the phrase, “I was skeptical at first; it sounds a bit Californian.” But before long, Warren told me, IDEO was conducting company-wide sessions “with 700 people doing HMW together.”

As Warren then moved from IDEO to Google, the infectious HMW approach found a new host. More recently, HMW was carried from Google to Facebook by Paul Adams, who worked with Warren on Google+.

And there’s evidence, too, that it may be spreading to the nonprofit sector. When one of IDEO’s co-founders, the late Bill Moggridge, was named director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2010, he brought HMW questioning with him. Soon after he started at the museum, Moggridge posed for a group photo with museum staff members — and everyone wore T-shirts bearing the words “How Might We…”

Min Basadur maintains that it’s common for companies to expend efforts asking the wrong questions and trying to solve the wrong problems. “Most business people have limited skills when it comes to ‘problem-finding’ or problem definition,” he says. “It’s not taught in MBA programs.” To fill that void, Basadur opened a consultancy, Basadur Applied Creativity, which developed its own “Simplex” process of creative problem-solving for business — with HMW questioning at the core of it.

HMW proponents say this form of questioning can be applied to almost any challenge — though it works best with ones that are ambitious, yet also achievable. Brown says it doesn’t work as well with problems that are too broad (“How might we solve world hunger?”) or too narrow (“How might we increase profits by 5 percent next quarter?”). Figuring out the right HMW questions to ask is a process, Brown says: “You need to find the sweet spot.”


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