Consultant skill 3: Inspire divergent thinking by asking

question_3_blogMost management consultants hone their skills in deductive, convergent thinking. Considering pros and cons and making informed decisions.

Design consultants bring another skill to the table. Divergent thinking aims to create better options in the first place, before narrowing down and making decisions in the convergent phase. It requires an empathetic, generative, and optimistic approach.

My aim for this article is to show how our questions can invite others to participate and create better options to choose from.

“As children, we’re naturally curious–that’s how we grow and learn–but by the time we start school that sense of wonder starts to escape us. The average teacher peppers kids with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply. The average six-year-old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Relearning this childlike curiosity is highly aspirational for any design consultant.”

— Tim Brown, Change by design

In a previous blog post I introduced a visual model for asking questions: 
With our questions we can help the other person to move up to focus on motivations. We can move down to focus on details and concrete facts. We can move sideways to explore alternatives. You will see that in order to inspire divergent thinking our questions will make a little dance on the graph and move in all 3 ways. 

Lateral chunking

If we were asked to design a better vase we could do one of two things. We could start sketching right away, different volumes, materials, shapes. Alternatively we could stop for a moment and ask about its purpose, the intended outcomes the vase is supposed to generate for the customer, the person who enjoys the flowers.

Theodore Levitt inspired by his famous quote:

“People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

— Theodore Levitt

Theodore Levitt points to an outcome. But a quarter-inch hole is not the ultimate payoff. We may continue asking for purpose [moving up on the graph] and discover why our customers really want a hole in their wall. It might be to hang a picture or a fire alarm.

The challenge for the consultant is to choose the appropriate height before going back down into possible solutions.

Many creativity techniques like Jobs-to-be-done borrow this form of upwards inquiry/downward exploration. Clayton Christensen, founder of the JTBD theory explains that customers 'hire' a product or service to get a certain job done—to achieve a desired outcome. Instead of designing a better nail in the example above, a better solution to fulfill the customer job with less friction might be an adhesive strip. But how do we get there?

We move back down to explore possible solutions by asking along the lines of
‘How else might we...’

This format opens various opportunities. It suggests that a solution is possible and that it is possible to answer them in various ways. A properly framed ‘How might we’ doesn’t suggest a particular solution, but gives you the perfect frame for divergent thinking.

This will result in a better challenge question to brief the team. It might go along the lines of 'How might we design a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home.' Any team will be better prepared with challenge questions or user stories that are formulated in such a way. Most would find it more inspiring. 

As an innovation strategy this produces fine results as well. A great example describes an owner of an 'oil-oven business' who went famously out of business with the advent of cleaner gas ovens. If he would have been in the business of 'warm homes' he might have looked sideways and be in business still today. 

Karen Dillon who has co-authored 'Competing against luck' together with Clayton Christensen, shares some excellent strategies for utilizing the JTBD framework to build successful products.

Ask for alternatives

To look beyond the options at hand, the obvious solutions, or the presenting problem as doctors and coaches call it we may want to ask along the lines of '...and what else?', 'What are we missing?’, Anything else?’ 
In this case we move sideways on the graph. 

Visualise your thinking

Many questions are hard to comprehend in words alone.
Exploring questions with your hands, testing ideas by sketching or building them, by role-playing them in a scenario are all fantastic tool to explore and communicate ideas. I am re-learning and re-appreciating this from our kids.  

We can observe this natural human preference in our language as well. We use phrases like ‘Can you see this?’, ‘How does this feel?’, ‘I hear what you are saying.’ Visual or physical props help us reflect the emotional and visceral meaning of a question as well as their rational resolution.


In your next product discovery try to move the attention direction up till you have reached a meaningful customer job. The reason why we really want to do 'the thing' and why we are happy to pay for it. Think about what these questions started to illuminate. When move back down by asking 'How might we' questions. Did they invite others to participate or did they close down opportunities? Can you identify any patterns? 

I am curious to hear about your best questions and ways of inquiry.

Please send me a short message to

Other posts in the consultant skills series:

Consultant skill 1: Building better relationships by asking [not telling]

Consultant skill 2: A more intentional inquiry

Consultant skill 3: Inspire divergent thinking by asking

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