Innovation, Curiosity, and Questioning

Teresa Kowal
4 min readOct 25, 2018


A recent study (Harvard Business Review states that 70% of employees say they face barriers to asking questions at work. Managers are often afraid of letting employees pursue their interests because it might create inefficiencies in the organization. Leaders don’t ask questions of their staff because they don’t want to appear incompetent or indecisive.

Yet, studies also show when leaders do ask questions, they appear more likeable and trustworthy. Trust, in turn, builds collaboration and motivation, yielding higher degrees of curiosity. Curiosity then leads to better performance and more creative innovations. And, higher levels of innovation drive market performance for new products and services. How can leaders take advantage of these benefits?

A Questioning Mindset

First, leaders must get over themselves. Ego and self-consciousness are often what holds back an executive or manager from asking questions. Leaders fear asking questions of direct reports and employees down-the-line will make them look dumb, incompetent, or unable to make decisions. Many executives harbor the false belief that they should know all the answers and talk more than listen.

Yet when we put forth questions and truly engage in listening, we learn more. Questions can help develop a deeper understanding of needs — both internal and external — to the organization. Open-ended questions drive discussions that yield more information and can help leaders gain insights to the health of the organization. Some painful questions to ask of employees and of customers include the following.

· What do you like best about the product or situation?

· What ignites your interest in this job?

· How could it be done easier?

· What would make this even better?

· What is difficult or challenging about this situation?

· How would you measure success?

Contrary to common belief, asking questions does not indicate weakness. However, questioning does demonstrate vulnerability, curiosity, and the will to improve.

A Curious Mindset

Curiosity is manifest in asking insightful, open questions. This is exactly why children, with seemingly endless curiosity, repeatedly ask why and how. Questioning curiosity is also the root of the “5 Whys” trouble-shooting method. Asking why in response to each layer of diagnosis allows team leaders to dig deeper into a problem until the root cause is revealed.

Studies show that curiosity and creativity are linked to higher job performance. Human beings are naturally curious and interested in “What makes it tick?” Teams that support healthy curiosity, empower creativity, and engage powerful questions are more innovative. These new product development (NPD) teams can identify customer needs bettered and can design products to meet those desires.

Moreover, teams bound by a common curiosity can develop solutions faster and work with a higher degree of trust. NPD teams with deep empathy for customers are better able to resolve conflicts and drive focus to the product over personalities. In short, curiosity improves both team and innovation performance.

Innovation as a Competency

Organizations can use questioning and curiosity as skills to empower innovation. Innovation is more than just a great idea and requires customer empathy and technical finesse in addressing market challenges. Innovation requires understanding technology as well as financial models in providing product and service solutions for customer needs.

While leaders are often reluctant to ask questions, innovation cannot be successful without questions. NPD teams must ask questions to discover and define customer problems. Innovators need powerful questions to drive creative insights in concept development and testing. And, NPD teams must challenge the success of a new product or service in the marketplace with questions designed to understand customer acceptance and profitability.

Innovation, Curiosity, and Questioning

Consider a technology company that asks its customers about their interest in mobile fitness tracking apps. With open-ended questions, the design team can learn that people want to track heart rate as well as steps. They may also learn, through root cause questioning, such as the 5 Whys, that users want to know their fitness progress at a touch of a button. The NPD team can design these features and functionalities quickly and test prototypes.

Because questioning and curiosity are at the core of the product development effort, an innovative fitness watch can be released quickly to this target market. Further, since users are engaged throughout the design process, needs are satisfied, and employees reach higher levels of performance.

Next Steps

How can you take your innovation performance to the next level? First, senior executives must demonstrate vulnerability to the organization, building trust and understanding, both internally and externally. Next, innovation teams must approach problems from the perspective of the customer, asking questions and engaging creative curiosity in developing solutions. Finally, organization must strive for a culture that supports open questioning and inherent curiosity.

To learn more, we discuss and diagnose your team’s leadership capabilities in Virutal Team Training. This training is built on the Virtual Team Model as featured in PDMA Essentials Volume 3 (published October 2018). We also incorporate elements of Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model to help you accelerate your team’s productivity and growth. Contact me at or 281–280–8717. At where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn — it’s simple!

Note that VTM self-study is included in the Innovation Master Mind (IMM) membership. IMM is a 6-month peer coaching group that allows you to extend your NPD knowledge beyond NPDP certification and to collaborate with other CIOs and innovation managers. We also offer independent coaching and consulting to new leaders or teams anywhere on the S-curve!

Study. Learn. Earn. Simple.


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Teresa Kowal

I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. My passion is innovation and helping others improve their new product development ecosystems.