Not too long ago, the people who had all the answers had all the power, but in a connected world awash in petabytes of data, answers are becoming commodities, and the people who know how to ask more beautiful questions will carry the day.
Warren Berger’s 2014 book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, is a good place to start if you want to understand why questioning has become so critical in today’s economy. This book is a primer on how to get started crafting questions that can help you get ahead in your career, and in life.
After all, as Case Western professor of Social Entrepreneurship, David Cooperrider states in the book:
We live in the world our questions create.
If that’s so, then the quality of the questions we ask helps define our reality, including the choices we make, the work we pursue and the level of achievement (and impact) we have.
Cooperrider calls the process of asking better questions, appreciative inquiry and it’s a skill that we can all acquire with some practice. Essentially, it’s a return to what we once did so naturally as children, before our schooling taught us to value answers over questions.
Children are born curious. Questions are an indispensable tool of exploration and development for them. And as Berger notes, “a recent study found that the average four-year old British girl asks her poor mum 390 questions a day; the boys that age aren’t far behind.”
But Berger adds that sometime during grade school, our genius for asking really great questions “falls off a cliff.”
We become less curious and we question less.
There is likely a power dynamic at play. Our teachers and then our bosses got to ask all the questions and we were expected to pay attention and memorize all the answers. Today, that’s a recipe for disaster.
As the world becomes more complex and more uncertain, the market is showing its appreciation for those intrepid individuals who dare to ask really big and beautiful questions. Entrepreneurs are a case in point. They are featured extensively throughout Berger’s book. From Polaroids, to the creator of Pandora’s music service, to the man who revolutionized the market for prosthetic limbs—great achievements and even great enterprises are born from asking beautiful questions.
So how do you ask better questions?
Berger suggests a simple iterative process:
- Start with WHY questions to frame the challenge and spark curiosity and investigation.
- Move on to WHAT IF questions to explore ideas and possible solutions.
- And ask HOW questions to prototype your solutions and test their effectiveness.
Try applying this methodolgy to your thorniest work or personal challenges and you might be surprised at what you find.
And here’s the bottom line, as the size of computer databases grows exponentially; as we find ourselves drowning in massive oceans of information that make us more ignorant (not more knowledgeable); the business of having all the answers is fast becoming commoditized. What we need now are people who can make sense of all this data so we can move forward and make progress.
Is that even possible without asking questions?
Probably not and that’s your opportunity!
For as E.E. Cummings once noted:
Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.
photo courtesy of Jonathan Simcoe