“Consultants get hired to ask the questions no one else in the organization will ask,” a lunch companion declared confidently. Later that same day, I read a blog post on education that discussed elements of the classroom and teaching paradigm that discourage students from asking questions.

Questions are loaded. The questioner may be perceived as naive, uninformed, ignorant. Worse is the freight accorded to questioning the status quo: the questioner can be perceived as attacking and hostile, a whistleblower. And yet, innovation doesn’t come from standing still.

Innovation culture makes a safe place for asking questions and gleaning answers through experimentation. And yet so much of any corporate environment demands structure, depends on process, and defends safety. Technology departments execute technology rather than innovate. Recall the IT adage, “No one ever got fired for buying [insert big established software company name here]”.

The reasons for this are many and important. And yet, technology is expected to drive innovation.
Google’s 20% time gets a lot of press. While ideas do take time to germinate and grow, time isn’t the only facet of a vibrant innovation culture. Few ideas happen in solitary confinement, so interaction is an important catalyst. Many entrepreneurs will talk about the critical role of the trusted people with whom they can discuss their ideas. Cross-pollination with other disciplines or with other types of experts can also turn up some incredible solutions. Some ideas need money to support training, prototyping, observation tours.

The manager who wants more innovation out of his or her organization should take a fearless inventory of the organizational environment and temperament. Some questions to ask: Are you making it safe to ask questions? How does your organization receive ideas? Is there tolerance for nascent ideas? And what resources are available to support the nurturing of new ideas: time, money, encouragement? And are you recognizing the contributions of your innovators in the way they would like to be recognized?

Writing for Slate, Alison Gopnik makes a compelling case that structure beats the creativity out of preternaturally curious pre-schoolers because their impetus for exploration is removed. It’s making me think about how corporate structure beats innovation out of adults.