How to see the opportunities we are missing: Ask the question: Why? Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? What if it were different?

Levi Belnap: Feb 2017 How to see the opportunities we are missing

I met a man at Disneyland and made an incorrect assumption about him.

I only saw what others saw.

I want to see what others miss.

We have to ask the question

The seeds of opportunity are all around us. We stumble upon them daily as we cruise through the routines of life on autopilot. But we rarely see what is right in front of us. We don’t stop to see. We don’t pause to listen. We don’t ask the question.

Asking the question! THIS is the beginning of every great discovery…

Why? Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? What if it were different?

Asking doesn’t guarantee us insights and opportunities, but not asking guarantees things stay the same. World-changing ideas, organizations, and businesses start with someone first asking a question and then listening to hear an answer others miss.

Learning to ask better questions

I want to learn to ask better questions because I don’t want to overlook the subtle answers that can change everything.

Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen has helped me learn more about asking better questions in the context of business and innovation.

In the book, Clay describes the innovators primary challenge as discovering causes. What motivates people to behave the way they do?

Understanding this is almost like seeing the future. If we know what causes someone to behave a certain way, then we can predict with greater accuracy. We can then use the causal insights to innovate with more confidence rather than just hoping to get lucky.

Jobs to Be Done

Clay uses a framework called Jobs to Be Done to teach how to think and what questions to ask in order to look at the same things everyone else is looking at but to see differently. If you’re familiar with Jobs to Be Done, then you’ll know why Clay loves Milkshakes. If not, here is a video of Clay explaining Jobs to Be Done and the Milkshake story:I’ve been studying and applying Jobs to Be Done thinking as a tool to help me innovate for over 5 years now. It’s not easy to do! I’ve made some big mistakes in the past 5 years that cost me and investors in wasted time and money. Looking back, it’s easy for me to see that I didn’t always understand the causes I thought I did. Often I was flying blind and hoping to get lucky, and I wasn’t always lucky.

One of the big mistakes I made was assuming I could innovate successfully just by knowing this way of thinking. But knowing and doing are very different.

Moving from theory to practice

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the doing side of things from one of the pioneers in this way of thinking, Bob Moesta. Bob taught me more about how to ask better questions to try and discover what causes people to behave the way they do. (Bob has a handbook with tactical guidance on how to ask better questions that has also been helpful to me.)

Discovery is the key here. Before learning from Bob, I often made the mistake of starting with my own assumptions and then asking questions to confirm that my assumptions were right. Or worse, I didn’t ask anyone any questions and just proceeded on my assumptions alone. But innovation doesn’t work this way. We don’t get to decide what causes people to behave a certain way, we are explorers trying to discover the causes that already exist. Upon discovery of these causes we can innovate with more confidence, but without understanding these causes we are gambling.

When to practice asking questions

Like anything in life, we get better at asking questions with practice. Here are some great ways to practice asking questions and seeing differently so we can discover the insights others miss:

  1. Start at work. Ask questions and make observations about why our customers behave the way they do and what their real motivations are. Do the same with colleagues, our boss, vendors, etc. I’ve been doing this at Wyzant and it has led to exciting discoveries about why people struggle to learn and what prompts them to reach out for help from an expert.
  2. Do it at home. Word of warning here, our significant others and children may not appreciate being interrogated! But that shouldn’t stop us from practicing at home. Stop and pay attention to what is happening in our own homes. What is causing the behaviors of people around us in our homes?
  3. Look inward. This one is tough because most of us are terrible at true self-reflection. It requires real humility to look at ourselves honestly, but if we can do it there is a lot to learn. We can pay more attention to our own behaviors. Pause and ask ourselves Why did I just do that? Look for the causes. What led to what? Why did I say that, feel that or do that?
  4. Look outward. As we’re out and about in the world, we can open our eyes! We are surrounded by interesting people and interesting behaviors everywhere we go. But we rarely stop to think about what caused someone to behave a certain way, and we almost never open our mouths and ask a stranger questions to understand the real causes behind their behaviors.

Practicing at Disneyland

I was at Disneyland with my wife, children and some friends. All 11 of us were in line for the Toy Story Mania! ride. As the adults talked strategy on how we were going to increase our scores (it was our second time in a row waiting in line for this ride), an older man in line behind us edged his way into our group and joined our conversation.

I realized this man was alone and my first thought was; “Who is this strange old man talking to us and why is he alone?” My mind subconsciously raced through assumptions and I settled on the assumption that he was here with other people but they were separated at the moment. The assumption seemed plausible in my mind and I started to direct my attention back to my children and friends. But something stopped me. The question came back to my mind, “Why is this man here alone?” I recognized this as an opportunity to practice asking questions and discovering causes.

I turned back to the man and said, “It sounds like you’ve been on this ride before. What brings you to Disneyland?

That’s all it took. That one simple question started a conversation that shattered my assumptions. As a result, I made an interesting discovery that could potentially drive an innovation opportunity for Disney.

The man looked at me surprised. Then he warmly replied “I actually come once or twice a week.”

His name is Larry. A few years ago he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a condition that partially paralyzes the muscles on one side of your face so half your face appears to droop. Bell’s Palsy is usually temporary and will go away and muscle control will return, but in Larry’s case it didn’t. He basically lost the ability to open his right eye. His speech was slurred because he couldn’t open the right side of his mouth and he started to lose control over his right leg so walking became difficult as well. He began seeing a physical therapist once a week for one-hour sessions. These sessions cost him $75 per visit, and after months of this therapy he didn’t see much improvement. The therapist told him he should try getting out and walking around more. He only lived a mile from Disneyland so he decided to try walking around Disneyland.

It worked! Larry started walking 10 miles a day around Disneyland. He told me the crowds of people and uneven surfaces forced him to exercise his muscles and use his eye. He now comes to Disneyland multiple times a week and spends hours walking around and going on some of the attractions he enjoys (like Toy Story Mania!). He sees real results, he has fun doing it and he saves money! The annual pass to Disneyland only costs him $300 a year instead of the $75 per week he was spending on Physical Therapy.

Larry and I waiting in line

Fascinating story, right? And I almost missed it! I bet Disney missed it as well. They likely think he’s a grandfather who visits the parks with his grandchildren. But he’s not. Larry’s motivation, what’s causing him to give his money to Disney, is different. Disney isn’t competing with other theme parks or vacation spots to earn Larry’s money; Disney is competing with physical therapy!

I don’t think Disney has a problem with park attendance based on the crowds…

However, there is a potential innovation opportunity in the insights from Larry’s story if Disney wanted to pursue it. How many of the 18+ million people in the greater Los Angeles area are paying for physical therapy right now? How many of them are not seeing the results they want from physical therapy? How many of these people would be interested in a Disneyland physical therapy pass…?

Do not throw away your shot

Did the conversation with Larry immediately change my life? No. Did my discoveries from our conversation lead to innovation opportunities I will capitalize on? Probably not. Does it matter? YES!  Why?  Because we don’t know when we will make the discoveries that change the trajectory of our life. Each time we see what others miss, we are training ourselves to discover subtle insights in the future.

When opportunity stares us in the face, will we recognize it? Or will we only see what others see and throw away our shot?

I am not throwing away my shot! (Thanks for the song in my head, Hamilton 😉)

I want to see what others miss.

So, I’m learning to ask better questions.