A More Beautiful Question

I am always learning how to ask the right questions. And while I love watching Billy on the Street ask questions, his type of questions and techniques won’t really fly in the workplace. Recently, I read three interesting books/pieces about asking questions and thought I’d share them in this two-part Blog.

A More Beautiful Question. I am loving the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. He really opens our minds to the art of asking questions. He reminds us of the story of how Edwin Land was inspired to invent the Polaroid instant camera in 1943. While on vacation in Santa Fe his three-year-old daughter asked, “Why can’t we see the picture you just took without having to wait?” This one question inspired him. Within a few short months he invented the instant camera. One question inspired him, and it was not from any expert.

Berger also wrote about Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, which designs new products and new ways to deliver healthcare. Brown says they almost always start with the question, “how might we?” Brown says that within that phrase each word plays a role. He said, “The ‘how’ part assumes there are solutions out there — it provides creative confidence. ‘Might’ says we can put ideas out there that might work or might not — either way, it’s OK. And the ‘we’ part says we’re going to do it together and build on each other’s ideas.”

I have read other work by Berger and love these two questions he shares from two people:

  1. How can we become the company that would put us out of business? (Danny Meyer)
  2. What is it like to work for me? (Robert Sutton)

Be Careful Not to Focus on Just What Bothers “Us”. I am a huge fan of Freakonomics and am really enjoying their new book Think Like a Freak. The authors, Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner, give us examples of how often when problems surface, we zoom in on the part of the problem that most bothers us or that we can get our teeth into most easily – and then fail to address the real problem.

One example they used was the decline of the U.S. education system. Much of the research and money has focused on improving the quality of teachers. Why? Because teachers are easy and familiar targets that everyone comes in contact with personally. They are easier to understand. Leavitt and Dubner point out that America is also likely focused on teachers because experts are trying to answer the question, “What’s wrong with our schools?” And, while the quality of some teachers needs improvement, we are likely focused on the wrong question.

Leavitt and Dubner, however, suggest we will come-up with different solutions when we ask, “Why do American kids know less than kids from Estonia and Poland?” They go on to discuss the myriad of social and family issues in the U.S. that have a far greater impact on this question than teachers. Many of the lessons they teach in the book focus on asking, and thus researching, the right question.

In Part 2 of this Blog I will write about how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions. And, equally important, I’ll write about how teams can learn to develop the right questions so they can work more effectively toward getting the best results.

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