Is “Knowing” Obsolete? And Other Powerful Questions

Since asking A More Beautiful Question is the heart of discovery in science, philosophy, medicine — and a powerful way to renew our shelf-life, says Warren Berger, we should become more aware of the power of inquiry and learn to ask the right questions.

According to Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute, questions not only open up thinking — they also can direct and focus it:

“People think of questioning as simple, but when done right, it's a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking.”

After making the case for the power of inquiry, Berger explains why we stop questioning and outlines a helpful framework to re-learn how to question well and effectively. The why, what if, and how structure precedes the chapter on questioning in business and questioning for life.

Why does everything begin with Why?

This comprises the first stage of innovative questioning — first confronting, formulating, and framing the initial question that articulates the challenge at hand, and trying to gain some understanding of context.

. Why does a particular situation exist?

. Why does it present a problem or create a need or opportunity, and for whom?

. Why has no one addressed this need or solved this problem before?

. Why do you personally (or your company, or organization) want to invest more time thinking about, and formulating questions around, this problem?

However, just asking why without taking any action is unlikely to produce change. To do that, we need to advance from the why to possible ideas for improvement by asking what if questions, then take one possibility to figure out how to make it real.

A child asks about forty thousand questions between the ages of two and five, progressing from seeking facts to looking for explanations. While this happens, we experience rapid brain growth by constantly connecting stimuli. Why do we stop questioning?

As children venture out in the world — synapses firing in their heads — they constantly encounter things they cannot classify or label. As the children's neurologist Stewart Mostofsky puts it, they have not yet developed mental models to categorize things, so part of what they are doing when questioning is asking adults to hep them with this huge job of categorizing hat they experience around them, labeling it, putting it in the proper file drawer of the brain.

The opportunity afforded by the lack of categorization is why we talk about innovation as having a beginner's mind. Because we think we know we stop looking, said fiction writer Alan Judd in Legacy.

Somewhere between the ages of four and five, children are ideally suited for questioning: they have gained the language skills to ask, their brains are still in an expansive, highly connective mode, and they're seeing things without labels or assumptions. They're perfect explorers. The physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about young children being scientists because they turn over rocks and mash things together; Harvard's Harris points out that they're also like anthropologists — they don't just conduct experiments, they ask the people around them questions.

People tend to think that kids don't care much about answers […] But they do, in fact, seem to care very much about the answers they get. A recent University of Michigan study found that when preschoolers ask Why, they're not just trying to annoy adults or simply prolong a conversation — they're trying to get to the bottom of things.

INSEAD professor and questioning expert Hal Gregersen says the reason kids ask 'why' over and over again is often because we don't understand their questions, or we're just not listening.

The more we feed information, mostly in the form of answers to questions not yet asked, the more we turn off curiosity, and curiosity says Brian Grazer, is the secret to a bigger life. Young children and scientists exhibit the same patterns of inquiry — they both like to explore and experiment, both ask simple questions that lead to interesting lines of inquiry. Why is the grass green?

Questions may fall off a cliff, yet the grass is always greener for innovators. In the past, knowledge provided a competitive advantage. Today, it is the ability to continuously learn new things that matters. The Institute for the Future documented this acquired (after early development) skill in an project — are you an extreme learner? they ask. Learning happens everywhere and it starts with teaching ourselves to question well.

Berger outlines how we can develop the skill to question so we can experiment, build, and learn better. In chapter 3, he outlines the why, what if, and how of innovative questioning. But while the how stage is positioned as a third and final stage, there is no final stage:

because the questions don't end, even when you arrive at a solution. Many successful questioners, having arrived at an answer, quickly return to asking questions. Often they are questioning the very answers they found, which may have not been definitive. There is invariably room (and the need) to find ways to improve those solutions, to expand upon them, take them to another level.

How can we do something? is a much more interesting question than “can we” do it, and one we should remember to switch to more often. Whether learning to ask questions better will help you at work, or in life, this is a skill that will no doubt contribute to making a more fulfilled, more curious, and more interesting you.


[image CC0 Public Domain]