Ask Questions With Intent
I recount, with much respect to Sridhar Ramanathan, the best gift from my teenage years, the habit it instilled in me, and how you can use its principles to devise your next move wherever you are.
In a Nutshell
Stuck on a Problem?
Say you are looking to generate ideas to solve a problem and are stuck. Use this simple technique — ask Questions with Intent. How? 5W + 1H + Active Verbs.
Start asking questions using any of the six interrogatives (What, When, Where, Who, Why, and How) and any number of active verbs. E.g., ‘What if we shift… ?’, ‘How about we ask… ?’.
These provocations will trigger ideas. Note them down. Look for more triggers. Browse for more active verbs. Stop when you have enough ideas. How many are enough? You tell us.
Use it for yourself, your team, or teams (e.g., a cross-functional ideation workshop). Happy questioning!
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Around the time I was getting ready to ship off to college, my father, who had recently moved from a mid-sized Auto Parts Manufacturer to a sizeable regional Newspaper with national ambitions, came to me one evening and said, “I have brought you something.”
He would often say this to my brother and me. Almost without fail, it meant he had brought home something for us to read. Almost without fail, it would engross us, on and off, for hours, days, sometimes months, and, in this case, years to come. A book, a magazine, notes from a business conference, lectures from an executive program, basically, something he didn’t need — he is a street-smart man-of-the-world who made his first deals at the age of 13 chasing debtors for recovery — but knew would be helpful for us.
This time around, he had brought a pocketbook. This book had a white cover with yellow artwork that represented, depending on whom you ask, a thought bubble, a tornado, or a freehand spark plug. I gave it a cursory read. It opened on Page 5. The first few pages were stuck (it will be months before I would bother to get them unstuck). There was a list of words, some blank pages, and a few instructions in the beginning. The only thing that stood out to me at THAT time was this comment: Keep it handy with you even during travel. All right, I said to myself, will do.
I closed the book and slipped it into the side pocket of my backpack. I didn’t know then that I was beginning a partnership spanning a decade and a half across six continents and engendering a habit that has led to x ideas where x is a large number. As I started to zip up that pocket, I took out the book again to read its title. There it was, at the bottom of the front cover right below the spark plug. It said — Creative Block Busting© — followed in the next line, in bold type, by two words — Ignition Spark.
Prescription for Action
Ignition Spark works on a simple but powerful insight (verbatim) — At the heart of each idea is an active verb. That’s all there is to this pocket dynamite, a fifty-three-page list of active verbs sandwiched between nominal instructions and blank pages to add more verbs. Remember that advice on using active verbs in your résumé and job interviews? Similar logic.
How to use it? Ask questions with intent.
Mr. Sridhar, a long-time adman and innovation facilitator who wrote and published Ignition Spark, gives a simple 5W + 1H framework — Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Say you have a problem and are stuck. Combine these interrogatives with active verbs and start asking questions.
“What if we shift production to Vietnam?”
“How about reducing the thickness of the bottle?”
“Why not remove the sleeve from the soap bar?”
You get the idea.
You may get lucky and land on an aha moment after the first few questions, but generally, it helps to ask many questions. In the beginning, the experience of using the technique is quite like cranking an engine that takes time to start.
However, as you go through the exercise at speed, without warning, these questions start triggering provocations that in turn become ideas. Will they work? Well, to use the car analogy, they may not take you to your destination, but they will give you a start — the eponymous Ignition Spark.
I used to close my eyes, open a random page of the book and point my finger at a random location on that page. The verb there would become my starting point. Then I would repeat the exercise until there were enough provocations to formulate a plan or pick someone else’s brains. Sometimes I would use a dictionary. After a while, I didn’t need the book. I would still have it handy, but the habit was ingrained.
I remember the first time I used this for a problem of some significance. I was the President of the Students’ Gymkhana at my college. There had been some questions about the spending of the student organization. It was a trust issue that had been building for long before me, and my colleagues were elected. For example, people would see a Student Executive on a bike not a few months after their election, and they would go, “Hmm… where did this bike come from?” It didn’t matter that the institute had its own comptroller who had to approve expenses. Trust-related questions are always tricky. There is no end to how much you can question someone or something if you don’t believe them.
I was sitting in the Gymkhana’s office one evening thinking, “We have nothing to hide.” Exactly, we had nothing to hide. And I go: How about we share the records with everyone? Why not invite them to scrutinize and question our expenses? What if we give people a whole month, so they have time to digest all information?
There was some opposition to this idea. We were early twenties kids working in a system three times our age. Sometimes you do what has been done for several years — e.g., an institute official would say, “So and so has provided stationery for several years now,” and you go, “It’s just stationery.” Audits happen on reference samples, approvals are required for expenditures above a specific limit, but questions are not bound by such pragmatism. In any case, we opened the books and invited all and sundry to our offices every day in the evening for a month to ask us questions. People could send emails also.
No one had done that in the past. We did it. What do you think happened? No one came, not a soul. It turned out just the gesture itself was a big deal. Or everybody was busy gaming. Take your pick.
I have continued to use the technique. It is so simple that it is a sin to call it a technique. That’s what efficient tools do. They become second nature. Once you make it a habit, you graduate to the next level. You start asking the right questions quicker instead of brute-forcing through a list of verbs or randomly selecting a few. Then you start seeing the leverage points of the systems you are addressing. And then you start seeing solutions.
Effective tools become second nature
Some years later, I found out that Questions with Intent worked even better in a team setting. That’s the story we shall get to now.
Mining in Mozambique
Throughout my childhood, ever since I came to know about Africa, I had always dreamed about landing somewhere on the continent. So when my boss, who had recently moved companies, called me one day in 2012 from Jo’burg asking if I would take a job at this small coal mine in Mozambique that he was getting up and running, it took me all of three seconds to blurt out, “Yes!”.
We were a mostly young group of engineers funded by a retired Indian Serviceman and the largest mining company in Lesotho. Our mandate was to cut our already low cost-base aggressively while maintaining high yields for our client — an Indian Steel Company. Our local crew was a mix of experienced miners, semi-skilled mechanics, and unskilled villagers who had sold the land to the steel company. This is the typical makeup of a small mine crew in greenfield areas. As a company, we had Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Malawians, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in the mix, with a rotating cast of South Africans thrown in.
As part of my work, I estimated the dollar value of every second we did not operate the mine, and we weren’t operating the mine for quite a few seconds every day. I shared my findings with the guys running the production shift and the maintenance crew that I led. That lunch quickly devolved into finger-pointing. “Equipment is not made available on time after repairs.” “Your operators are rough riding the trucks.” “These eggs are too runny.” And so on.
We broke for our shifts or breaks. I went to my boss. If he hadn’t been a miner, he would have been a military man; God rest his soul. He cut through the bullshit and said, “People have mined earth for thousands of years. Most of our problems were solved long ago. It’s just that this mine hasn’t solved them yet. I want a joint proposal soon; otherwise, I will make the changes, and you guys won’t like them.”
The guys and I met again — this time, I gave them some rules.
5W + 1H + Active Verbs. Go!
I am indeed translating and economizing on the usual expletive-laden speech that characterized our daily grind. The uneven engine-cranking has been removed as well. But the things below certainly capture the gist.
“What if we record attendance on the bus? That will utilize the 15-minute journey from the barracks and save 15 minutes on the ground.”
“We still have to assign the trucks and the excavators.”
“How about outgoing shift shares the available equipment on Whatsapp 15 minutes before the new shift starts?”
“Why not make a group? It will serve as a record for cross-checking.”
“Let’s post time of breakdown, photos, et cetera.”
“Then we will also post the time of equipment release from the workshop, and you should post photos of the accidents.”
“That’s the point, my ‘buoy’.”
“Where can we set up shop for minor breakdowns?” (In the parking)
“Why not deploy a mechanic in the mine?” (Okay)
Soon we weren’t asking questions. “You know, back in Goa, we used to…” or “Let’s make a rule that…”
My boss was right. These problems that we faced had been solved long ago. They were a challenge to us because we didn’t always have the right resources to implement such solutions. We needed frugal innovation in a high-churn, low-skill environment. Probably our solutions were as simple as our problems. But that is not what I am trying to get at here.
You can induce team(s) to reframe challenges from ‘your problems’ to ‘our solutions’. All it takes is to expose them to the right information (e.g., dollar value of time and total time lost in a mine in Mozambique) and get them to ask the right Questions with Intent.
Will the ideas work? They will definitely give you a start.
When does this work? Why?
After Mozambique, I joined the internal Supply Chain Strategy group in Unilever. I went from mining coal to selling soaps like The Gemera, going from 0 to 60. That’s where I oversaw the most consequential applications of the principles we have discussed in this post, whether it was turning around a hair care business that had merged and doubled overnight, mining for cost engineering ideas in a category that had seemingly ‘exhausted’ those avenues, or defining future value chains in some of Unilever’s biggest markets.
Over time I distilled my own thought process around how to build systems that help scale a solution in large organizations — Question with Intent. Only this time, five principal ‘actives’ get more focus than other verbs. But I am getting ahead of myself. We shall discuss that in a future post. Suffice to say that there isn’t a challenge where you can’t apply these principles and get your engines firing.
Why is that? | A placeholder
We would love to give you our point of view on this. But before we do that, how about you try this yourself for a week? You already know the six interrogatives. Take your pick for the active verbs and the problem you want to solve. Use it in your team. Let us know what happened in the comments below or on our LinkedIn page, and check back this space for our take this Friday (May 28, 2021).
EndNote: Tickle Me Think
Sometime in 2013, Mr. Sridhar launched an app called TickleMeThink. I did not know about it until recently when I came across an old post by Lakshmipathy Bhat, another long-time adman, at his blog bhatnaturally. It’s a pity this app is no longer around.
Do you use an app to generate ideas? Once again, let us know in the comments below or on our page.
Until next time.