As any good journalism student knows, the most powerful toolset in his or her arsenal are the five Ws and the one H. Who, what, when, where and why, along with how, answer many questions and provide insight. This tool have been immortalized by many, including Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a short poem entitled Six Serving Men, in praise of these words.
Those of us in the innovation space use these powerful tools as well, but it is important to understand a distinction. For the journalist, capturing what happened and why it happened, the emphasis is on capturing a story accurately. To that end, it often doesn’t matter which word he or she leads with, or in which order. But for an innovator, it makes all the difference in the world.
There is a subtle distinction in these words that sets the stage for creativity or shuts it down. Several of these words – what and why especially – can become very speculative and open the door to broader thinking. For example, many good innovators will start a discussion with “why don’t we…” or “what if we…”. IDEO is known for asking “How might we…”. In this regard, these questions are expansive and open to interpretation. Starting an idea generation session or for that matter any innovation effort in this manner is empowering.
Meanwhile, many of these words are specific and functional. Who, how, when and where can be exceptionally limiting. Who should do this? By when should it be done? These are evaluative questions with specific answers, definitive scope. Starting an innovation program with these questions (except possibly for the planning) will limit thinking. However these questions are very important once the expansive thinking is complete and we must turn our attention to converting ideas into valuable products and services.
Timing the use of these questions, to place more of the speculative, open ended questions at the beginning and the more evaluative and close ended questions later in the exercise is the best use of all of these questions. While all are valuable, there are very significant differences as to when and where the words are best used.
Herein as well lies the distinction between being aware of a tool and fully understanding its use. Many of us are aware of the 5W1H technique, but awareness of the tool and understanding of its best use are two rather different things.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.