At KILN we read with interest and delight a recent Harvard Business Review blog by Warren Berger, “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use.” The magic phrase is How Might We – and it’s the phrase that’s the start of a question — one innovators answer with ideas.
The article documents the wider adoption of this technique by innovators at companies like Google, Facebook and IDEO.
This technique is one we know well. We like it so much we’ve incorporated the technique as part of our FuseTrail process for creating bigger, bolder, braver questions – which is where innovation really starts (virtually all our work at KILN using “How Might We…” is behind closed doors, but here’s one example that we can share.)
Berger cites the consultant Min Basadur as teaching the technique over the last 40 years. Basadur has indeed been an amazing and influential thought leader in the innovation space for years. I first met Min round about 1988 at CPSI (the Creative Problem Solving Institute). In fact, if I had to point to one person who most resembles Manny, an influential character in my business novel, Jack’s Notebook, that would be Min. The P&G “Coast” development story Berger shares is just one of many Basadur could tell: he’s worked all over the globe helping companies get to better questions and better answers.
What Berger doesn’t say is that “How Might We” is part of a framework articulated by Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes called “CPS” which stands for Creative Problem Solving. In the CPS model you explore challenges, frame them (using phrases like How Might We), generate ideas, refine them, and put them into action. HMW is just one of the stems for creative thinking CPS offers, there are others and they’re equally powerful when applied well.
I notice that Berger doesn’t use the word “brainstorming” anywhere in his article and it’s a wise choice because the word promotes controversy (see Jonah Lehrer, Po Bronson, and Ashley Merryman – they all say it doesn’t work). However, if you define brainstorming as what Osborn specified (and he coined the term, brainstorming, in his seminal book Applied Imagination) it would include the phrase “How Might We” — and a more extensive framework that has been used successfully — for over 60 years — by innovators in the know.
It’s ironic that Osborn-Parnes is lurking in the background of an article telling stories of innovation success. Min Basadur – and many other consultants, educators, and scientists – have used CPS since its development in the late 40’s. So, while CPS is not known by everyone, it’s not a secret, it’s in the literature. CPS is taught at the annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) since 1953. We would add that in addition to the companies he mentions like IDEO, CPS (and How Might We…) was used by the founders of Yahoo, by teams at Cisco, Xerox, IBM, and by KILN’s own Gregg Fraley in the founding of Med-E-Systems/Advanced Health Corporation.
KILN’s FuseTrail is modelled around CPS. We layer on our unique set of tools and techniques for conceptual mash-ups, but at it’s root, it’s the tried and true CPS. And with good reason. As the HBR piece explains: it works.