To get the best answerin business, in lifeyou have to ask the best possible question. Innovation expert Warren Berger shows that ability is both an art and a science.
It may be the most underappreciated tool at our disposal, one we learn to use well in infancyand then abandon as we grow older. Critical to learning, innovation, success, even to happinessyet often discouraged in our schools and workplacesit can unlock new business opportunities and reinvent industries, spark creative insights at many levels, and provide a transformative new outlook on life. It is the ability to questionand to do so deeply, imaginatively, and “beautifully.”
In this fascinating exploration of the surprising power of questioning, innovation expert Warren Berger reveals that powerhouse businesses like Google, Nike, and Netflix, as well as hot Silicon Valley startups like Pandora and Airbnb, are fueled by the ability to ask fundamental, game-changing questions. But Berger also shares human stories of people using questioning to solve everyday problemsfrom “How can I adapt my career in a time of constant change?” to “How can I step back from the daily rush and figure out what really makes me happy?”
By showing how to approach questioning with an open, curious mind and a willingness to work through a series of “Why,” “What if,” and “How” queries, Berger offers an inspiring framework of how we can all arrive at better solutions, fresh possibilities, and greater success in business and life.
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A More Beautiful Question
THE POWER OF INQUIRY TO SPARK BREAKTHROUGH IDEAS
By WARREN BERGER
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Warren Berger
All rights reserved.
The Power of Inquiry
If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they make a decent foot?
What can a question do?
What business are we in now—and is there still a job for me?
Are questions becoming more valuable than answers?
Is "knowing" obsolete?
Why does everything begin with Why?
How do you move from asking to action?
If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they make a decent foot?
Back in 1976, long before there was a Google to field all of our queries, a young man named Van Phillips started asking the question above, first in his head and then aloud. Phillips felt his future depended upon finding a good answer, and no one seemed to have one for him.
He was twenty-one years old and had been living the charmed life of an athletic, handsome, and bright young college student. But one day in the summer of that year, Phillips's fortunes changed. He was water-skiing on a lake in Arizona when a small fire broke out on the boat pulling him. In the ensuing confusion, the boat's driver didn't see that a second motorboat, coming around a blind curve in the lake, was headed straight at Phillips.
Phillips awoke from anesthesia the next morning in a hospital. He recalls, "I did the proverbial 'I don't want to look, but let's see'" and checked under his blanket to find "an empty place where my left foot should have been." The limb had been severed, just below the knee, by the other boat's propeller.
At the hospital, Phillips was fitted with "a pink foot attached to an aluminum tube." The "foot" wasn't much more than a block of wood with foam rubber added; such was the state of prosthetic limbs at the time. Phillips left the hospital with instructions: Get used to your "new best friend," walk on it twice a day, and "toughen up that stump." One of the first times he tried to walk on the foot, Phillips recalls, he tripped "on a pebble the size of a pea." He knew, right then, this was not going to work for him. He recalls visiting his girlfriend's parents' house around that time, and being taken aside by her father, who said, "Van—you're just going to have to learn to accept this." When he heard that, Phillips recalls, "I bit my tongue. I knew he was right, in a way—I did have to accept that I was an amputee. But I would not accept the fact that I had to wear this foot."
At that moment, Phillips exhibited one of the telltale signs of an innovative questioner: a refusal to accept the existing reality. He'd shown other signs before that in childhood—as a kid, he once went through his house and removed all the doorknobs (mischievous What If I take this apart? childhood stories are common among questioners). But now, as an adult, he was experiencing a critical Why moment, as in Why should I settle for this lousy foot?
This did not seem an unreasonable question to Phillips, particularly since he was very aware—as was everyone else at the time—that amazing things were happening in the world of technology, particularly in the U.S. space program. Hence, he naturally wondered why some of the vast means and know-how that enabled a man to walk on the moon couldn't somehow be applied to his down-to-earth problem.
What he hadn't thought of at that time—it would become clear to him later, as he got to know more about the field of prosthetics—was that some problems do not have governments or large corporations rushing to solve them. The prosthetics industry had been "in a time warp for decades," Phillips recalls. No one was investing in it because the customer base, amputees, was no one's idea of an attractive business market. "But this worked to my advantage in a way," Phillips told me, years later. Since progress had been stalled for so long, it left plenty of room to question outdated approaches and status quo practices—and to inject much-needed fresh thinking.
Still, Phillips quickly found, as a naive questioner sometimes does, that his Why and What If inquiries weren't particularly welcome in the realm of What Is. Frequently in various professional domains—in hospitals or doctors' offices, in business conference rooms, even in classrooms—basic, fundamental questions can make people impatient and even uncomfortable. Phillips's questions about why there weren't better prosthetic limbs, and whether that could be changed, could be taken as a challenge to the expertise of those who knew far more than he did on the subject—the doctors, the prosthetics engineers, and others who understood "what was possible" at the time.
As an outsider in that domain, Phillips was actually in the best position to ask questions. One of the many interesting and appealing things about questioning is that it often has an inverse relationship to expertise—such that, within their own subject areas, experts are apt to be poor questioners. Frank Lloyd Wright put it well when he remarked that an expert is someone who has "stopped thinking because he 'knows.'" If you "know," there's no reason to ask; yet if you don't ask, then you are relying on "expert" knowledge that is certainly limited, may be outdated, and could be altogether wrong.
Phillips was not going to convince the experts that he knew better (and in fact, he didn't "know" better—he only suspected). Somewhere along the line, he took another critical step for a questioner tackling a challenge: He took ownership of that question, Why can't they make a better foot? To do this, he had to make a change of pronouns: Specifically, he had to replace they with I.
This is an important concept, as explained by the small, independent inventor and inveterate questioner Mark Noonan, who once, after suffering his umpteenth backache from shoveling snow, wondered, Why don't they come up with a better shovel? Noonan solved the problem himself, inventing a shovel with a long handle, a lever, and a wheel—when you use it, you no longer have to bend your back. Noonan observes that if you never actually do anything about a problem yourself, then you're not really questioning—you're complaining. And that situation you're complaining about may never change because, as Regina Dugan, a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director, has observed about problems in general, "We think someone else—someone smarter than us, someone more capable, with more resources—will solve that problem. But there isn't anyone else."
When Van Phillips realized that he was going to have to answer his own question, he also understood, almost immediately, that to inquire about prosthetics in a meaningful way he would have to wade into that world. He had been a broadcast major in college, but now changed directions and enrolled in one of the top prosthetics study programs in the United States, at Northwestern University, from whence he found work in a prosthetics lab in Utah. He began to understand how and why prosthetic limbs were designed the way they were.
He would spend nearly a decade grappling with his original question, then forming new ones, and eventually acting upon those. Phillips's journey of inquiry led him to some unusual places: He extracted lessons from the animal kingdom and borrowed influences from his local swimming pool as well as from the battlefields of ancient China.
In his pursuit of a better foot, he faltered many times—literally, he fell to the ground again and again. This would happen as he was trying to answer his latest question (I wonder if this prototype will hold up better than the last one?) by taking it for a test run. He would receive his disappointing answer each time the new version of the foot broke under him. He would curse and swear, and then, inevitably, he would begin to ask new questions—attempting to understand and learn from each of his failures.
Then one day, the foot under him didn't break. And Phillips knew, at that moment, that he was about to change the world.
What can a question do?
The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer observed that questions "are the engines of intellect—cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry." Fischer's "engine" is just one of many metaphors that have been used to try to describe the surprising power that questions have. Questions are sometimes seen as spades that help to unearth buried truths; or flashlights that, in the words of Dan Rothstein of the Right Question Institute (RQI), "shine a light on where you need to go."
The late Frances Peavey, a quirky, colorful social activist whose work revolved around what she called "strategic questioning" aimed at bridging cultural differences between people, once observed that a good question is like "a lever used to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can."
Maybe we talk about what a question is like because it's hard to wrap our minds around what it actually is. Many tend to think of it as a form of speech—but that would mean if you didn't utter a question, it wouldn't exist, and that's not the case. A question can reside in the mind for a long time—maybe forever—without being spoken to anyone.
We do know that the ability to question, whether verbally or through other means, is one of the things that separates us from lower primates. Paul Harris, an education professor at Harvard University who has studied questioning in children, observes, "Unlike other primates, we humans are designed so that the young look to the old for cultural information." He sees this as an important "evolutionary divide"—that from an early age, even before speech, humans will use some form of questioning to try to gain information. A child may pick up a kiwi fruit and indicate, through a look or gesture directed at a nearby adult, a desire to know more. Chimpanzees don't do this; they may "ask" for a treat through signaling, but it's a simple request for food, as opposed to an information-seeking question.
So then, one of the primary drivers of questioning is an awareness of what we don't know—which is a form of higher awareness that separates not only man from monkey but also the smart and curious person from the dullard who doesn't know or care. Good questioners tend to be aware of, and quite comfortable with, their own ignorance (Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of the TED Conferences, has been known to brag, "I know more about my ignorance than you know about yours"). But they constantly probe that vast ignorance using the question flashlight—or, if you prefer, they attack it with the question spade.
The author Stuart Firestein, in his fine book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, argues that one of the keys to scientific discovery is the willingness of scientists to embrace ignorance—and to use questions as a means of navigating through it to new discoveries. "One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking," Firestein writes. "Answers, on the other hand, often end the process."
This expansive effect of questions has been studied by Dan Rothstein, who along with his colleague Luz Santana established the Right Question Institute, a small and fascinating nonprofit group formed in order to try to advance the teaching of questioning skills. Rothstein believes that questions do something—he is not sure precisely what—that has an "unlocking" effect in people's minds. "It's an experience we've all had at one point or another," Rothstein maintains. "Just asking or hearing a question phrased a certain way produces an almost palpable feeling of discovery and new understanding. Questions produce the lightbulb effect."
Rothstein has seen this phenomenon at work in classrooms where students (whether adults or children) are instructed to think and brainstorm using only questions. As they do this, Rothstein says, the floodgates of imagination seem to open up. The participants tend to become more engaged, more interested, in the subject at hand; the ideas begin to low, in the form of questions. Harvard Business Review writer Polly LaBarre echoes this in describing the effect that lively and imaginative questioning can have in business settings: Such questions can be "fundamentally subversive, disruptive, and playful" and seem to "switch people into the mode required to create anything new."
How do questions do this? The neurologist and author Ken Heilman, a leading expert on creative activity in the brain, acknowledges that scant research has been focused on what's happening in the brain when we ask questions. Neurologists these days can tell us what's going on in the cerebral cortex when we daydream, watch a commercial, or work on a crossword puzzle, but, strangely, no one has much to say about the mental processes involved in forming and asking a question. However, Heilman points out, there has been significant neurological study of divergent thinking—the mental process of trying to come up with alternative ideas. Heilman notes, "Since divergent thinking is about saying, 'Hey, what if I think diferently about this?' it's actually a form of asking questions."
What we know about divergent thinking is that it mostly happens in the more creative right hemisphere of the brain; that it taps into imagination and often triggers random association of ideas (which is a primary source of creativity); and that it can be intellectually stimulating and rewarding. So to the extent that questioning triggers divergent thinking, it's not surprising that it can have the kind of mind-opening effect that Rothstein has observed in classrooms using RQI's question-based teaching.
Rothstein points out, however, that questions not only open up thinking—they also can direct and focus it. In his exercises, students may begin with wide-open, divergent "what-if" speculation, but they gradually use their own questions to do "convergent" (focused) thinking as they get at the core of a difficult problem and reach consensus on how to proceed. They even use questions for "meta cognitive thinking," as they analyze and reflect upon their own questions. "People think of questioning as simple," Rothstein says, but when done right, "it's a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking."
It is also egalitarian: "You don't have to hold a position of authority to ask a powerful question," noted LaBarre. In some ways, it can be more difficult or risky for those in authority to question. In Hal Gregersen's study of business leaders who question, he found that they exhibited an unusual "blend of humility and confidence"—they were humble enough to acknowledge a lack of knowledge, and confident enough to admit this in front of others. The latter is no small thing given that, as author Sir Ken Robinson has observed, "In our culture, not to know is to be at fault, socially."
Being willing to question is one thing; questioning well and effectively is another. Not all questions have the positive effects described above. Open questions—in particular, the kind of Why, What If, and How questions that can't be answered with simple facts—generally tend to encourage creative thinking more than closed yes-or-no questions (though closed questions have their place, too, as we'll see).
What may be even more important is the tone of questions. Confronted with a challenge or problem, one could respond with the question Oh my God, what are we going to do? Faced with the same situation, one might ask, What if this change represents an opportunity for us? How might we make the most of the situation?
Questions of the second type, with a more positive tone, will tend to yield better answers, according to David Cooperrider, a Case Western professor who has developed a popular theory of "appreciative inquiry." Cooperrider says that "organizations gravitate toward the questions they ask." If the questions from leaders and managers focus more on Why are we falling behind competitors? and Who is to blame?, then the organization is more likely to end up with a culture of turf-guarding and inger-pointing. Conversely, if the questions asked tend to be more expansive and optimistic, then that will be reflected in the culture. This is true of more than companies, he maintains. Whether we're talking about countries, communities, families, or individuals, "we all live in the world our questions create."
Excerpted from A More Beautiful Question by WARREN BERGER. Copyright © 2014 Warren Berger. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Why Questioning?, 1,
1. The Power of Inquiry, 11,
2. Why We Stop Questioning, 39,
3. The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning, 71,
4. Questioning in Business, 135,
5. Questioning for Life, 175,
Index of Questions, 247,
Index of Questioners, 257,