These three words will make you more innovative

Just three simple words might be the secret to more innovative solutions to problems you face in your organization.  According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article one of the secrets to highly innovative companies is that they frame problems as “How Might We…”(HMW) questions.  This way of framing problems contrasts with more typical approaches to asking, “Can we solve this problem or implement this solution?” or “Should we solve this problem or implement this solution?”  Asking “Can we..” or “Should we…” invites us to make a judgment, which encourages us to talk about barriers to solving the problem rather than encouraging us to think more freely and open up possibilities. 

Instead, you should frame your problems as “How Might We…?” questions to invite innovation and possibility.  In the HBR article Tim Brown (IDEO) notes that each part of a HMW question serves a purpose.  First, by saying “How” the question sends a clear message that solutions exist.  Maybe they don’t exist today and maybe it is up to us to create them, but “How” creates an optimistic mindset.  Second, “Might” encourages us to put our idea our there.  Some of our ideas might work and some may fail, but by using “Might” we increase the number of ideas considered, which increases the odds that we find a good solution.  Third, by saying “We” we are saying that we are the ones that can come up with these ideas.  “We” means that we have control over identifying and developing the solution to this vexing problem. 


I have been working with teams to develop HMW questions for several years now in various environments.  I have used this approach in school improvement teams, with school boards working on strategic direction, and with teachers participating in Innovation Box.  My experience is that it is more difficult to craft these HMW questions than you might think and it is worth it.  When I work with teams they usually enter the process with an idea about what solution or strategy they would like to pursue, but rarely a common understanding of the problem they are trying to solve.  By taking the time to frame your problem as a HMW question, you significantly increase the possibility of finding a solution. 


Several years ago, I met with a school district that was about to start working on a new strategic plan.  In our first meeting, I was told that the major challenge they faced was the implementation of foreign language across the entire district in all grades.  My initial response was that they didn’t need a strategic plan to address that issue since it was an operational issue, not a strategic issue.  I also asked them what problem they were trying to solve by implementing foreign language across the district.  Initially, they said the need for students to learn a foreign language.  I asked ‘why” and we drilled down further into the problem.  Finally, I encouraged them to frame our conversation as a HMW problem that the strategic planning team could use as a jumping off point.  They end up with, “How might we develop a 21st century education system that prepares students for the rapidly changing world of school and work after high school?”  Instead of just ending up with an implementation plan for foreign language across the entire district, the strategic planning team researched and deliberated and ended up with multiple solutions to this complex problem including, foreign language, STEAM-focus, and an expansion of early childhood education.  Many of these solutions would not have been considered if the problem had not been framed as a HMW question. 

I encourage you to use these three words to become more innovative in your own context.  Whether your own context.  If you are a school board member or district leader, try reframing challenges into HMW questions and invite more possibilities.  If you are a classroom teacher, engage your students in solving your challenging problems by framing them as HMW questions (e.g. HMW be more efficient in our transitions?  HMW improve our lunchroom experience?)




Joseph MillerComment