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A More Beautiful Question

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger

Some of my favourite excerpts…

E. E. Cummings, from whom I borrowed this book’s title, wrote, Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.

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To encourage or even allow questioning is to cede power—not something that is done lightly in hierarchical companies or in government organizations, or even in classrooms, where a teacher must be willing to give up control to allow for more questioning.

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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.

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The focus here is on questions that can be acted upon, questions that can lead to tangible results and change.

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The esteemed physicist Edward Witten told me that in his work he is always searching for “a question that is hard (and interesting) enough that it is worth answering and easy enough that one can actually answer it.”

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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a good question is like “a lever used to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can.”

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“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,” Stuart Firestein writes. “Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

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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 differently 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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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 flow, in the form of questions. Harvard Business Review writer Polly LaBarre11 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.”

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

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In observing how questioners tackle problems, I noticed a pattern in many of the stories: • Person encounters a situation that is less than ideal; asks Why. • Person begins to come up with ideas for possible improvements/solutions—with such ideas usually surfacing in the form of What If possibilities. • Person takes one of those possibilities and tries to implement it or make it real; this mostly involves figuring out How.

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Stuart Firestein, in his book Ignorance, wonders if we’ve gotten too comfortable with this. Are we too enthralled with answers? he asks. Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long? Often the worst thing you can do with a difficult question is to try to answer it too quickly.

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She began by laying out a provocative premise to her twenty-five students: Torture can be justified. In the parlance of Rothstein and Santana, this opening statement is known as a Q-focus because its purpose is to provide a focal point for generating questions from the students. Peet’s class was divided into small groups, and each group’s initial task was to come up with as many questions as possible, within a time limit, pertaining to that statement. After reviewing a set of rules (write each question down, don’t debate or try to answer questions, just keep trying to think of more questions), the students in each group began to come at that premise from a variety of angles. Some questions aimed at bringing clarity to the issue: How do you define torture? When is torture used? Some were offbeat yet intriguing: Can torture make you happy? Other questions expanded the scope of the discussion: Does torture have anything to do with justice? Who are most likely to be tortured? The kids had no experience doing this type of questioning exercise, but according to Peet, after some initial reservations about the rules (some felt that questions ought to be answered as soon as they were raised), the questions began to flow freely within each group, with each written down by a group member. Then the students were directed to the second stage of the exercise: They were instructed to change open questions to closed ones, and vice versa—so that, for example, an open question that began as Why is torture effective? might be changed to a closed one: Is torture effective? The purpose of this part of the exercise, according to Rothstein, is to show that a question can be narrowed down in some cases, or expanded in others. As students do this, he says, they begin to see that “the way you ask a question yields different results and can lead you in different directions.” Next, the students were asked to “prioritize” their questions: to figure out which three were the most important to move the discussion forward. Rothstein and Santana stress the importance of this “convergent” part of questioning. They feel it’s not enough to encourage students to toss out questions endlessly; to question effectively, they must learn how to analyze their own questions and zero in on ones they would like to pursue further.

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This may be partly because Rothstein and Santana cleverly designed the process with gamelike rules (only questions allowed; any nonquestion must be turned into a question) that inject an element of play into

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Teachers design a Question Focus (e.g., “Torture can be justified”). Students produce questions (no help from the teacher; no answering or debating the questions; write down every question; change any statements into questions). Students improve their questions (opening and closing them).

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Students prioritize their questions. They are typically instructed to come to agreement on three favorites. Students and teachers decide on next steps, for acting on the prioritized questions. Students reflect on what they have learned.

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The process is designed to be simple enough that teachers can learn it in an hour, and students can grasp it immediately. However, making it simple was hard—that basic formula took about a decade to produce.

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What’s required to ask powerful Why questions. To do so, we must: • Step back. • Notice what others miss. • Challenge assumptions (including our own). • Gain a deeper understanding of the situation or problem at hand, through contextual inquiry. • Question the questions we’re asking. • Take ownership of a particular question.

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Zabelina had noticed, in previous studies, that young children tended to perform well on creativity tests because they are uninhibited. So Zabelina and Robinson took two groups of adults and instructed one group to think of themselves as “seven-year-olds, enjoying a day off from school” (the other group just thought of themselves as the adults they are). When the two groups were given a creativity test, the “think young” group came up with better, more original ideas and exhibited “more flexible, fluid thinking.” Zabelina believes that “mind-sets are flexible. It is possible to tap into the more open way of thinking of a child.” All that’s needed, it seems, is to be given permission (by others or by ourselves) to take that step back in time.

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asks, “How many squares did you see?” The easy answer is sixteen.

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He said the exercise particularly resonates with people who are in a difficult situation: “Sometimes people feel like they have nowhere to go and they’ve run out of options, and my point is, ‘There is always another square, another possibility, if you just keep looking for it.’”

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question Why should we, as a society, continue to buy things that we really don’t need to own? (Consider, for example, that the average power drill in the United States is used a total of thirteen minutes in its lifetime.) As Gebbia notes, we’ve spent decades accumulating “stuff” in the modern consumer age. “What if we spent the next hundred years sharing more of that stuff? What if access trumped ownership?”

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sometimes is a good thing.) Another common counterquestion that challengers can expect to be hit with is some version of Okay, genius, how would you do it better? An interesting assumption is built into this question: that if someone is going to challenge the existing ways, then he/she had better have an alternative ready. But it’s important to ask Why and What If questions even if we don’t yet know the How. Getting to a better alternative may be a long process, but it has to start somewhere—and that starting point often involves questioning the status quo.

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What are the underlying assumptions of that question? Is there a different question I should be asking?”

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the car-parts-incubator story—in which the wrong question is asked, based on incomplete information or faulty assumptions, often because those formulating the questions are too far removed from the problem they’re trying to solve. One of the best ways to overcome this is to try to close the distance between the questioner and the problem.

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“listening with your whole body”—using all senses to absorb what’s going on around you.

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In Westergren’s case, ideas and influences began to come together; he combined what he knew about music with what he was learning about technology. Inspiration was drawn from a magazine article, and from a seemingly unrelated world (biology).

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Smart recombinations are all around us. Pandora, for example, is a combination of radio station and search engine; it also takes the biological model of genetic coding and transfers it to the domain of music (a smart recombination often takes ideas or influences from separate domains and mashes them together). In today’s tech world, many of the most successful products—Apple’s iPhone being just one notable example—are hybrids, melding functions and features in new ways.

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We arrive at originality because the dendrites have reached out and made contact with the branches of faraway “trees,” thereby enabling us to combine thoughts, bits of knowledge, and influences that normally do not mix.

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Zhong’s research has found that we can’t necessarily control the brain’s search for remote connections—much of which happens in the unconscious mind—but we can provide impetus and help guide that search by focusing on a problem to be solved, a challenging question to be answered. “Having that goal or that question you’re working on is very important,” Zhong confirms. If your conscious mind puts a big question out there, chances are good that your unconscious mind will go to work on it.

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it’s useful to have some acquired knowledge on the problem—preferably gathered from diverse viewpoints. It also helps to have a wide base of knowledge on all sorts of things that might seem to be unrelated to the problem—the more eclectic your storehouse of information, the more possibilities for unexpected connections. (Heilman points out that people who are well read and well traveled, those who have diverse interests and a broad liberal arts education, are developing “a whole series of different modules that can enable more connectivity and more creativity.”)

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But before undertaking conscious efforts to spark connective inquiry, bear in mind that it seems to thrive when we’re distracted or even unconscious. So the best thing may be to take your question for a walk. Or take it to the museum. Or, if you’re feeling lucky, take it to bed.

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For a questioner, it’s important to spend time with challenging questions instead of trying to answer them right away. By “living with” a question, thinking about it and then stepping away from it, allowing it to marinate, you give your brain a chance to come up with the kinds of fresh insights and What If possibilities that can lead to breakthroughs.

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Ray Kurzweil revealed in an interview. He said that when he is working on a difficult problem, he sets aside time, right before going to bed, to review all the pertinent issues and challenges. Then he goes to sleep and allows his unconscious mind to go to work.

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Writing recently on the site Big Think, Sam McNerney pulled together a number of recent studies showing that sleeping can help people to perform better at solving difficult problems requiring a creative solution. (McNerney quoted an old John Steinbeck line: “A difficult problem at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”)

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If you’re looking to take a break and simultaneously stimulate connective inquiry, a visit to the museum might be just the ticket. It engages the imagination, yet leaves room for thinking; it offers up as inspiration the many creative connections and smart recombinations that others have produced in the past; and it exposes the visitor to so many ideas and influences that it provides abundant raw

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A number of creative artists use word-combination exercises like this to get their creative juices flowing. It’s become so popular that you don’t even need a dictionary anymore—the Idea Generator app will randomly select and combine three words for you when you shake your smartphone.

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In sharing early versions of an idea with the world at large, one is likely to receive negative feedback—which some people interpret as evidence of a failure. But that’s not necessarily true, says Harvard’s Paul Bottino, who points out that when it comes to feedback, “dissonance can actually be more valuable than resonance.” As people push back on your idea, it can be a good indication that you’re entering uncharted, potentially important territory—because you’re more likely to get negative feedback (“That could never work!”) on ideas that challenge common assumptions. “Dissonance is the most misunderstood kind of feedback,” Bottino says. “We really should welcome it and learn to make the most of it.”

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day: “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

 

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Keith Yamashita, a longtime consultant to top companies such as IBM and Coca-Cola, observes that in the business world at large “we’re coming off a twenty-five-year2 posteighties period of efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. I think the unintended consequence of that entire efficiency era is that people diminished their questions to very small-minded ones. In this quest for incremental improvement, it became all about asking, How can we save a little bit of money, make it a little more efficient, where can we cut costs?” But Yamashita says the era of “small-minded questions” is ending.

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What is our company’s purpose on this earth?

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To figure out the internal values, Yamashita urges company leaders to look back in time and consider this question: Who have we (as a company) historically been when we’ve been at our best?

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Whom must we fearlessly become? That can be a difficult challenge, he says, because it requires “envisioning a version of the company that does not exist yet.”

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“For any organization, it is galvanizing to have a strong purpose and values, no matter what they might be.” A good way to surface that is by looking back to when the business was founded and asking, What was that higher purpose at the outset? And how can we rally people around that today?

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Who would miss us?

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What should we stop doing?

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That question is really asking, Where in the company is it safe to ask radical questions? “As an established business,” Ogilvie says, “you’ve got all these promises you’re keeping to your current customers—you have to stay focused on that. But that may not have a future.” So the question becomes “Where, within the company, can you explore heretical questions that could threaten the business as it is—without contaminating what you’re doing now?” Company leadership needs to “provide permission and protocols for experimentation,” he says. That means providing the time and resources for people to explore new questions, as well as establishing methods: “How might we?” questioning sessions,

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In the business world, Hal Gregersen has been studying the effectiveness of question-storming at major corporations and has found it to be far more effective than conventional brainstorming. “Regular brainstorming for ideas often hits a wall because we only have so many ideas,” Gregersen says. “Part of the reason we hit that wall is we’re asking the wrong questions.”

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RQI recommends coming out of a session with three great questions that you want to explore further.

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HMW proponents say this form of questioning can be applied to almost any challenge—though it works best with ones that are ambitious yet also achievable. Brown says it doesn’t work as well with problems that are too broad (How might we solve world hunger?) or too narrow (How might we increase profits by 5 percent next quarter?). Figuring out the right HMW questions to ask is a process, Brown says; “You need to find the sweet spot.”

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It’s also critical for company leaders to be on the lookout for ways in which questioning gets punished—though the punishment may not be obvious or intentional. The operative question is If an employee asks questions at our company, is he or she asking for trouble?

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The better approach is to ask the problem-finders to what extent and how they would want to be involved in working on that problem. The understanding should be they won’t have to go it alone; that they’ll be given as much time and support as is feasible; and that, even if they never ultimately answer the question, they’ve earned credit just by asking it.

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The author Jonathan Fields, who has written extensively and eloquently about uncertainty, points out that it’s common to think about the unknown and get an unsettling feeling in the stomach. A questioner must come to terms with that sensation the way an actor handles performance anxiety—by forging ahead despite the butterflies. Eventually, as one does this, they become a welcome signal that you’re moving into interesting uncharted territory, and that you might be on your way to something exciting.

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But experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the ways you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment.

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Jacobs quotes Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, who said, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

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What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? In the past few years, the question has had another surge in popularity that seems to have been jump-started by the former DARPA director Regina Dugan, who used it in a widely circulated TED speech.

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Those not comfortable enough to laugh at failure might start by questioning its nature, and how we perceive it. What does failure mean to me: Do I see it as an end state, or a temporary stage in a process? How do I distinguish between an acceptable failure and unacceptable one? (Not all failures are equal—and not all help you to move forward; some can shut everything down.) Can I use productive “small failures” as a means of avoiding devastating “big failures”?

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Fields doesn’t particularly like the What if you could not fail? question. “It proposes a fantasy scenario,” he told me. “I’m more interested in taking people through a series of questions that will actually empower you to take action in the face of the reality that you might fail.” Fields thinks that as we embark on a new endeavor, we should begin by confronting that possibility of failure via this question: What if I fail—how will I recover?

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Another important question Fields thinks we should ask: What if I do nothing?

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Lastly, Fields says, ask yourself: What if I succeed?

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The blogger Chris Guillebeau put yet another spin on the Schuller question. “Instead of thinking about what you would do if you knew you wouldn’t fail,” Guillebeau writes, “maybe a better question is . . . What’s truly worth doing, whether you fail or succeed?”

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How would you like things to be different in your life?”

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How do you feel about the condition of the river? How do you explain the condition of the river to your children? Peavey said she chose her language carefully, trying not to use the word pollution (which might offend people who believed the river to be holy) and instead framing the questions and the discussion around “taking care of the river.” She could tell that people were daunted by the enormity of the task—so she began to focus the questions on a more long-term, ongoing objective: How are you preparing your children to clean up the river?

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question the views of those with whom we disagree—yet with an open, curious mind: Why might they see the issue this way? Why do I see it differently? What assumptions are we each operating under?

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To quote David Cooperrider, a powerful question never sleeps. It can get deep into your head, to the point that you may find yourself working on it both consciously and unconsciously.

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Look for a question that is “ambitious yet actionable”—or, as the physicist Edward Witten puts it, a question that’s hard enough to be interesting, but realistic enough that you have some hope of answering it.