Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Ask Better Questions to Generate More Powerful Ideas”

July 01, 2014

I learned in college that there were a lot of people who had far higher IQs than myself. Somehow, I recognized that these people didn’t threaten my success but were actually great resources to help me learn faster and get things done more quickly and effectively. My subsequent career was shaped by consistently looking to surround myself with people who were smarter than me.

The key to leveraging these smart people was to learn how to ask questions and pick their brains. Today, this skill is more important than ever. As we create the “Internet of Things,” the amount of information available online is growing exponentially. As a result, the amount any single individual knows as a percentage of total available knowledge is declining at an accelerating rate.

Asking better questions

And yet, information is useless unless we are able to determine what it means. Therefore, the ability to ask better questions is an essential skill for all of us. Warren Berger, author of “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,” helps us learn to do that.

Berger says that a “beautiful question” is one that reframes an issue and forces us to look at it in a different way. Such a question not only challenges assumptions, but energizes people to want to talk about them and work on them. For example, the idea behind the instant camera came from a 3-year-old girl who asked, “Why do we have to wait for a picture?” It was a great question, one that led the girl’s father, Polaroid founder Edwin Land, to find the answer.

When we are overloaded with information, context becomes critical. What matters now is the ability to look at something from multiple sources to understand more fully the challenge we are facing. This requires us to ask all kinds of peripheral questions. We must learn to pick not only other people’s brains, but to challenge our own assumptions as well.

Why?  What If?  How?

Berger recommends three stages of innovative questioning:

1.   The “Why?” stage helps us get to the core and helps focus on those things that matter. Why do we care? Why does this exist? Why has no one done anything about it?

2.   The “What If?” stage generates fresh ideas for improvement. Most of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and as a result, we rush to solutions too quickly. If we take our time to explore a wider range of possibilities, we generate far more powerful ideas, which can then be tested.

3.   “How?” is the final stage prior to taking action. We ask questions such as, “How do we decide which of the ideas to pursue? How will we test these ideas?”

I believe that if we continually challenge current ways of doing things and leverage the power of our collective wisdom, we will discover a continuous stream of breakthrough ideas. Asking questions is key. But asking better questions — and more of them — can inspire exceptional ideas that change everything.