Build Your Business:

The Idea Generator: Part 3

In the last of this three-part series, discover how using a question-based idea-generation system can unlock a lot of opportunities.

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

August 13, 2021

The first article in this three-part series on idea generation was about the power of collaboration. In the second article, we explored the idea of randomness to inject some fun creativity into your ideation process.

In this final installment, we’ll use the most powerful tool of all for mining new ideas: questions.

While this may seem like something you’re already familiar with and may be doing, I’ve noticed that most shops in this industry spend a lot of time selling to the customer, not really discovering exactly how they can serve them best. Whether it’s handling a simple order or a complex program for a client, using a question-based idea-generation system truly can unlock a lot of opportunities.

Focus on the Right Questions
The problem with searching for answers is that many times, either you or your customer will come into a conversation preloaded with what you think is the right answer. Instead, as the initial part of the exercise, try having a conversation where you spend time listing all the questions that should be asked.

Don’t worry about the answers. First, list the questions that should be part of the discussion. Your goal should be to discover are the various angles that need to be discussed from different perspectives, including:

  • Your client’s point of view
  • Their customer’s outlook
  • Your point of view
  • The supply chain, your vendors or other stakeholders in the process

It will be the same project, but everyone’s role may be different and have unique timelines, needs, wants or rules.

This Isn’t New
Thomas Edison pioneered the idea of gathering teams of people for his laboratory, known as an “invention factory,” in 1876. His teams consisted of people with different backgrounds — artists, plumbers, craftsmen, engineers and young, recent college grads.

He wanted the teams to view the problems he was trying to solve from diverse perspectives to sneak up on the solutions. Using this method, he patented 1,093 different inventions and transformed the way industrial research and development was accomplished.

When people from different viewpoints look at a challenge, they don’t bring their cognitive biases and assumptions to the table when trying to find a solution. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they’re more apt to challenge “what’s right” and point out the “elephants” in the room.

Innovations always come from doing something new, not from doing the same thing repeatedly.

A Starting Point for Questions
Maybe you actually have a diverse team of people at your fingertips. Maybe it’s just you and your client in a conference room. Either way, get started brainstorming on new ideas by posing some starter questions to prime the pump for other questions to follow.

Try these:

  • What’s currently working that needs to remain in place?
  • What’s not working that needs to be changed?
  • What does success look like?
  • What does failure look like?
  • Describe the goal. What’s the result that needs to be achieved?

This line of questioning separates problem-solvers from
order-takers. When you use questions to help generate ideas, you are working on your customers’ best interests, not simply trying to sell them something.

Think of it as discovery. Good selling isn’t about the transactional part of the process, which often is, “How many and how much?” Instead, it’s about getting to the truth about what will best help the customer. This builds trust and enhances your value in the process, while also relieving the customer’s anxiety about the situation.

Brainstorming with Questions
Here’s an exercise that may help you with your next customer. For everyone involved, try to ask as many questions as you possibly can in five minutes. That’s right; don’t worry about the answers. Rather, focus only on the questions.

Write them down on a legal pad, whiteboard or note-taking app as you go. What’s really fun is to reel these questions off as quickly as you can think of them. It’s brainstorming, so there are no wrong questions to pose. Just keep listing them.

Remember, any effort spent trying to find answers will only clog your thinking. Just jot down the questions; answers can come later. Don’t forget to think about how different people or stakeholders that are associated with the challenge may view the situation and what questions they would ask.

  • What would your end customer ask?
  • In your company, what questions might your staff ask?
  • Think about your supply chain. What questions would they pose?
  • Are there other stakeholders involved, such as the people that handle licensing or building online stores? What would they ask?
  • Use basic question words such as “who,” “what,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

If you feel stuck, come back to this challenge later. Sometimes your brain keeps working on the challenge, which is why plenty of people have that “Eureka!” moment in the shower or when they’re vacuuming the carpet.

Examine the List of Questions
Next, look at all the questions you wrote. Are there any new avenues you could explore? You especially want to note ones that may illuminate a potential hazard or something to avoid.

Are there any questions on the list that stand out as incredibly important? This could be a deadline, or a financial or supply question. These are the ones that should rise to the top of the list and be discussed first with your customer.

Remember, your goal with question-based idea generation isn’t to think about why you can’t do something, but how you can do it. The questions will uncover discussion points that aren’t obvious, and you can be working on the solutions much earlier in the process.

Your job is to challenge assumptions. I’m sure you’ve have scheduled a meeting with a customer before. Have you ever started a conversation or meeting and, afterwards, found yourself amazed that your original thought wasn’t valid? Thinking of as many questions as possible first helps facilitate better understanding and discussions with clients about what matters most to them. On your question list, use an asterisk or star next to the questions that are particularly intriguing. This helps you rank and sort them from the rest on the list.

Not all of your questions in the brainstorming session will have to be answered, as some simply serve as stepping stones to larger or deeper avenues of attack. We’re after idea generation here, not making a test to take later.

Get Better at Questioning
What happens when you consistently go to the gym to work out? Naturally, you get stronger and healthier. The same goes for when you start using the question-based approach for dealing with new projects, programs or being creative. The more you learn how to ask questions, the better you will become at doing it.

This works because before you can work on solving a particular problem, it helps to completely define what you’re doing. To become better at questioning, create a safe space for it to occur. Be open and honest, and be willing to follow the path on which the questions take you.

That’s where the powerful answers live.

Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at