By Warren Berger
Summary by Getabstract
It’s Not What You Already Know…
When you face a problem, you look for a solution. That seems reasonable enough, but is solution-seeking always the best strategy? You generally devise solutions by drawing on information you already know or by trying fixes that worked in the past. But what if you face a new kind of problem that requires a new kind of solution – one that no one has tried before you?
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“One good question…can generate whole new fields of inquiry and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”
International Black Sheep Day 2022
You won’t find a breakthrough idea by reviewing what you already know. Instead, follow the example of such innovators as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs: Don’t look for answers; look for “beautiful questions” instead. The game-changing products, services and entertainment you enjoy today – including online shopping and Pixar movies – have their roots in questions. As New York Times technology reporter David Pogue asserts, such imaginative leaps occur “when someone looks at the way things have always been done and asks why.”
Three Kinds of Queries
Interviews with more than 100 creative thinkers in science, business, technology and entertainment suggest that effective questioners usually pose three kinds of queries:
- “Why questions” – When amputee Van Phillips struggled with the clumsy prosthetics of the 1970s, he asked, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?” Why questions inspired innovations such as the Polaroid camera and Netflix. The door to fresh solutions opens when you refuse to accept the existing reality.
- “What-if questions” – Phillips dreamed up possible solutions to his why question by asking what-if questions. What if a foot could be like a diving board? What if a prosthetic foot could be like a cheetah’s paw? What-if questions enable you to browse through possibilities without regard to practicality. They help you conjure fresh approaches to established problems. They free you from what you think you know.
- “How questions” – Phillips asked how he could incorporate the spring force of a diving board or the power of a cheetah’s paw into a prosthetic foot. Only after going through how questioning did he hit on the concept of a curved wooden blade that he called the Flex-Foot.
Why Don’t Adults Question More?
Human beings are natural-born questioners. Almost every kid asks, “Why is the sky blue?” That’s only one of the 40,000 questions that the typical child asks between the ages of two and five. After that age, the number of questions that children ask drops off dramatically as they grow older.
“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”
One culprit is school, which emphasizes facts and rewards students who have the “right answers.” “Schools in many industrialized nations were not, for the most part, designed to produce innovative thinkers or questioners – their primary purpose was to produce workers.” As a result, schools prioritize obedience and memorizing core facts, both desired traits in a laborer.
Another factor concerns how you allocate your mental resources. You can’t question everything in your daily life and still function efficiently. You have to perform many tasks automatically, ignoring distractions and inconsistencies so you can reserve your mental energy for the things you choose to focus on. But in today’s environment of rapid change, you can safely ignore fewer things. As your environment becomes more unpredictable, you need to ask more questions in order to adapt successfully.
Corporate cultures generally repress questioning. The founders of many major companies modeled their enterprises on the military, with layers of responsibility and status, and with little scope for asking questions about standard practices and processes. This system tends to sanction expertise instead of curiosity. Industrial economies reward expressing confidence and acting as if you have all the answers. As consultant Eric Ries points out, “If you did your homework, you were supposed to know.”
In times of change, when you constantly confront the unknown, you must rely on creativity more than knowledge. Questioning stimulates your creativity.
The Naive Question: Why?
The first step in innovation is to forget what you know, or at least clear it from your conscious mind. Steve Jobs, for instance, adopted the Zen Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind,” the ability to see a situation as if for the first time. Heed Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s advice, who wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” You can cultivate this frame of mind by asking naive questions, including a child’s favorite: “Why?”
“One of the many interesting and appealing things about questioning is that it often has an inverse relationship to expertise.”
A child’s why led to the development of the Polaroid camera. On a family vacation in the 1940s, Edwin Land’s three-year-old daughter asked why she couldn’t immediately see the photograph her father had just taken. Land knew that producing an instant photograph was impossible: You had to develop film in a darkroom. But instead of relying on what he knew, he continued to think about her question. Four years later, his first black-and-white instant camera hit the market.
Why is powerful because it gives you a new perspective. Why lets you “step back” from your assumptions and expertise and see things freshly, with a beginner’s mind.
The Dreamer’s Question: What If?
Your why opens a new field of thought, often unveiling a need. A second kind of question – What if? – will help you imagine ways to satisfy this need. Asking a what-if question lets you brainstorm a range of solutions, freeing your imagination from the constraints of practicality. Innovation requires “a time for wild, improbable ideas to surface and inspire.” Sometimes the most outlandish what-if question is the one that produces results.
Tim Westergren once asked a far-fetched question that juxtaposed concepts from biology and the arts: “What if we could map the DNA of music?” This idea led to Pandora Internet Radio, which recommends music to users based on an analysis of its “basic building blocks.”
In many cases, you don’t have to invent your what-if ideas out of whole cloth: Many fresh ideas are recombinations of existing and often seemingly incompatible concepts. Westergren’s combination of songs and genetics is an example of “remixing” ideas. Einstein, Jobs, Walt Disney and Star Wars director George Lucas were all master remixers. They borrowed existing ideas and combined them in creative, unexpected ways.
“Questions (the right ones, anyway) are good at generating momentum, which is why change-makers so often use them as a starting point.”
If you don’t feel as creative as an Einstein or a Disney, embrace a few useful techniques to stimulate your recombining abilities. One tactic is to “think wrong.” Force your thinking out of its familiar tracks by purposely “coming up with ideas that seem to make no sense, mixing and matching things that don’t normally go together.” Wrong thinking might lead you to the question, “What if some company started selling socks that didn’t match?” This provocative, nonsensical question led to the business plan of the now thriving sock company, LittleMissMatched.
Or just go for a stroll. To unleash creative mixing, give your mind time to let the question “incubate.” By “stepping away…you give your brain a chance to come up with the kinds of fresh insights and what-if possibilities that can lead to breakthroughs.” According to brain researcher Chen-Bo Zhong, the mind does this best in a “state of inattention”: Pulling the conscious mind away from the problem at hand gives your unconscious a chance to go to work.
Gently distracting the conscious mind is easy enough. Go to a museum, take a walk, daydream or even sleep. When the brain is relaxed, it “turns inward” and ignores distractions, which generates more brain “activity in the right hemisphere,” which is the more creative part of the brain. A visit to a museum can be a perfect way to step back: It provides a break from conscious attention on your problem and offers a plethora of ideas that will stimulate your imagination and generate fresh conceptual fodder for thinking of innovative connections.
The Realist’s Question: How?
The third stage of “actionable inquiry” is when you narrow down your what-if ideas and figure out how to make one of them into a workable product or process. During this “slow, methodical” stage, test ideas, watch them fail and learn from the failures.
Test your idea by building a prototype – any kind of working model – whether it’s a crude mock-up built from simple materials or a graphic representation on a computer screen. Don’t overplan the concepts you try. “Quickly test ideas to get feedback and see what works and what doesn’t.” Phillips tested more than 200 Flex-Foot prototypes. Become inured to any successive failures – each one unveils new pieces of information that take you that much nearer to success.
“For decades, [Toyota] used the practice of asking why five times in succession as a means of getting to the root of a particular manufacturing problem.”
During the why and what-if stages, ignoring conventional wisdom often proves useful. Yet during the how phase, other people’s expertise can be a rich resource. In the digital era, reaching out to a diverse collection of people who have expertise, abilities and conceptual brilliance is easier than ever. When you have a compelling question, people “almost can’t resist advising or helping you” find some great answers.
Fostering a “Culture of Inquiry”
Conventional businesses prize doing over questioning and expertise over uncertainty. Today, knowledge for its own sake is less valuable. As the speed of change accelerates, expertise has a shorter lifespan. Today’s answers are out of date tomorrow. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, you needn’t memorize vast stores of knowledge – almost any fact is a mouse click away.
“sking why can be the first step to bringing about change in almost any context.”
Businesses can take several steps to foster a culture of inquiry:
Start with the leadership – Leaders need to welcome the challenges of uncertainty. The old role for leaders was to know; their new role is to make sense of change for their employees. A chief executive officer who becomes a chief executive questioner encourages everyone throughout the organization to ask probing questions. Employees are likely to come up with inquiries that wouldn’t occur to the top brass. The most effective leader doesn’t only offer answers. He or she uses Socratic-style debate and deeper questioning to spark intense creativity from staff members.
“Reward questioning” – Organizations should stop punishing those who ask questions or saddling those who identify a problem with the responsibility of fixing it. Companies need to devise ways to give employees the time to pursue meaningful lines of inquiry. Google, for instance, has a “20% time” policy whereby employees can “devote a fifth of their time to work on independent projects.”
Restructure the company as a learning environment – Organizations need to create an atmosphere that nurtures exploration. Some replace the traditional military model with cultures relying on the metaphors of the university or the laboratory. Google, for example, hosts guest lecturers and provides a platform for employees to teach in-house classes on topics ranging from technology to parenting.
Replace brainstorming with “question-storming” – Brainstorming sessions leverage the power of collaboration, but be aware that pressure to come up with original ideas and solutions can short-circuit creativity. Shift the focus toward generating questions about a problem.
Recruit questioners – To bring about a change in how your firm thinks, search for and hire information seekers. Populate the company culture with daring new employees who are “naturally inquisitive.” Job interviews traditionally assess a candidate’s talent for answering questions. A more revealing method might be to test an interviewee’s ability to ask questions as well. Require candidates to bring a handful of questions about your business to the interview. Build on those inquiries by asking follow-up questions to the interviewee’s questions.
ASIN : 1491589698
Publisher : Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio; Unabridged edition (January 12, 2016)
Language : English
ISBN-10 : 9781491589694
ISBN-13 : 978-1491589694
Item Weight : 3.5 ounces
Dimensions : 6.5 x 0.63 x 5.5 inches
Best Sellers Rank: #1,500,449 in Books
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