Imagine your new CEO is on a meet-and-greet with groups of new employees. With one group, she poses a challenging question and gets instant suggestions about what she should do. When asking the same question to another group, she gets questions back that explore her real needs in depth, followed by a request to spend some time thinking about this issue and to respond to her in a few days’ time.

The second group is likely to add more value for the CEO, as they’re trying to explore the issue before starting a creative thinking process to answer her question. However, it doesn’t have to be your CEO posing the question.

This five-stage “Freaky Thinking” approach can help learning and development (L&D) professionals and their teams find more creative answers in any problem or opportunity situation.

Stage 1: Killer Questions

A Killer Question is a bold and powerful challenge to apply curiosity and creative thinking to deliver significant value in the way the question is answered. It’s a question that hasn’t yet been answered satisfactorily within the organization but is one you intuitively feel is possible to answer.

Killer Questions can be instigated by individuals or teams as something they want to address for themselves. Alternatively, they may be posed by a manager with a specific need and cascaded down to the people within their area. Either way, the question needs to be of a scale and focus such that it inspires people to want to answer it — and to apply interesting thinking techniques that will help them achieve a positive outcome.

Stage 2: Deconstructing the Killer Question

The Killer Question is usually too unwieldy to answer effectively as a single entity, and so it needs to be broken down into several sub-questions, which can then be addressed individually. These sub-questions make it easy to allocate distinct elements to different people, or for an individual to have several approaches to switch between when they want a change.

A deconstruction matrix can identify various scales of change that the sub-questions can focus on. Sub-questions may range from targeting a modest change for a small group at one extreme, to targeting a big change to a large sector at the other. However, few organizations want dramatic, radical change from the get-go — as that carries too much risk.

Typically, big changes — such as implementing a new learning management system (LMS) or revamping your remote learning programs — start off small to gauge viability, so having sub-questions targeted at smaller changes that can be used as proof-points quickly may be the best route to success.

Stage 3: Unleashing the Creativity

Many popular creative thinking tools or frameworks simply capture ideas delivered by an actively creative mind. However, not everyone is skilled in this way. Paradoxically, creativity requires rigid structures to force and forge new mental connections within the individual’s mind, and it’s these new connections that are the forming of the desired new ideas.

Simple idea generation tools that can be readily applied by anyone should be considered. These tools include the radical misuse of search engines, the understanding of similar situations in completely different industries and more. These tools rely less on natural creativity skills and more on a desire to learn something new that applies to the Killer Question being addressed — which makes them more inclusive in the workplace.

Stage 4: Selecting the Win Quicklies

Win Quicklies are ideas that can be implemented quickly to act as proof points for a part of your Killer Question’s solution. They minimize the implementation risk by quickly showing how something much larger is feasible. They also help the individual or team to see the results of their ideas sooner, as several Win Quicklies may go live in parallel rather than one bigger, slower moving concept.

Potential Win Quickly ideas are assessed on their effectiveness to prove something and how easy the idea is to implement. Ideas that rate high on both these measures are the ones you ideally want to progress. Win Quicklies differ from “quick wins,” which are small things that are worth doing but may not be a candidate for something potentially much bigger and bolder.

Stage 5: Boosting the Ideas

L&D professionals may assume that if they offer a complete packaged solution to a Killer Question, they’ll be lauded as heroes by the poser of the question — but this is rarely the case. L&D managers often have more knowledge than their reports in terms of the organization’s activities that the solution needs to align with. So, non-managerial L&D professionals should position their concepts as flexible solutions that stakeholders can shape accordingly.

This takes the pressure off the L&D professional, as both sides know that what’s presented is the starting point for shaping an ultimate solution together. This works for both parties’ benefit. From the idea presenter’s perspective, these joint developments help build the idea into a more-robust concept while simultaneously gaining support from the stakeholder.

In Summary

Today’s workplace wants answers quickly in order to deliver innovative solutions and gain the associated benefits. However, spending time initially to focus on forming a great Killer Question—and validating it with others—is time well spent. When a Killer Question is defined and agreed by all concerned, chunking it down into targeted, engaging sub-questions makes it easier to address.

It’s important to understand that creative thinking isn’t necessarily a natural trait. However, it’s a process that can be learned and that will benefit you in your role as a learning leader.