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Book Review: Getting to Innovation
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Book Review: Getting to Innovation by Arthur B. VanGundy

Getting to Innovation: How Asking the Right Questions Generates the Great Ideas Your Company Needs

Written by: Arthur B. VanGundy. New York: AMACOM, 2007. 270+xvii pages.
Reviewed by: Greg Githens

Getting to Innovation

It is my experience that people characteristically invest more energy in describing solutions and less in defining the underlying problem, need, or opportunity. Part of this phenomenon is people's reliance on ad hoc brainstorming. Many innovation initiatives typically start with an executive saying something like, “We need to grow with new products.” Soon, there is a meeting where participants respond with their ideas of, “Here's how we can do it.” During the meeting, someone usually observes that he or she lacks consensus on the problem definition statement; however, the group's preference for solution generation has its own kind of inertia that has the consequence of delivering incremental or suboptimal results.

Arthur VanGundy's Getting to Innovation describes a disciplined problem-solving approach that emphasizes “framing organizational innovation challenges at the outset of a project” (p. xii). The concept of a mental “frame” is fundamental in the literature on thinking skills, and it means the paradigm or boundary of the matter under consideration. Frames are often poorly stated, so reframing is valuable. VanGundy emphasizes framing innovation in the context of strategic intent and strategy through a systematic approach to posing questions.

One reframing technique is to ask the “why” question in response to the initial request. For example, if management says, “We need to develop a new product line,” the team would start by exploring the rationale, asking, “Why do we need to develop a new product line?” Answering this question might reveal whether the opportunity lies in exploiting technology, responding to a customer's request, or matching a competitive entry. VanGundy suggests asking many stakeholders many questions and provides examples of more than 100 questions to stimulate thinking. Though questions like, “Who are our customers? What markets are we in?” (pp. 32–33) seem mundane, my experience is that people often are unable to give answers that are aligned with those of management and their peers. People tend to assume that the answers to the basic questions are known and that exploring basic framing questions is a waste of time. The problem, of course, is that many times people's minds have not grasped the initial question. VanGundy points out correctly that there never will be worthwhile answers without the proper questions (p. 17). After a broad survey of the universe of available questions, Van Gundy advises narrowing the questions down to a “challenge bank” composed of a few vital, profound questions that will serve as the focal point for innovation. There is a simple suggestion for making a challenge question useful: Place the phrase, “How might we ...” (p. 60) in front of the need; for example, How might we define our markets and market share? How might we increase our customer loyalty? The point is to identify and work on those challenges that are most likely to be productive in advancing the organization's strategy.

Overall, Getting to Innovation is readable and a practical refresher on problem definition. It would be particularly useful to a number of small to medium-size companies that periodically schedule brainstorming retreats for identifying solutions for improving their business.

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