Asking Better and More Beautiful Questions

Why__by_WhiteSpeed

Beautiful answers require beautiful (and better) questions and Warren Berger’s new book looks at this very phenomenon of inquiry and asks: What does it mean to ask better questions and what does that mean for the answers we seek and receive?  

Warren Berger recently published  A More Beautiful Question, a book looking at something we take for granted and yet is the foundational building block for all great designs and innovations: the question.

Perhaps more specifically, Berger is looking at hundreds of questions as he delves into the process of questioning, the kind of questions that lead to provocative and insightful answers, and the habits of good questioning that make for sustained innovation over time.  Berger is well suited to this inquiry having penned the book Glimmer, which profiled designer Bruce Mau and explored the concept of design thinking in great detail.

Asking good questions is perhaps the (often unstated, missed and neglected) foundation of what design thinking is all about and seeing that design is the foundation of innovation it therefore means that questioning is at that foundation, too. This is important stuff.

Finding the right problem by asking better questions

A look at any bookstore, blog roll, or journal dealing with the topic of innovation and you’ll inevitably find the word “creativity” used a lot. Creativity — the act and process of creating things — is highly correlated with the questions that spur the creation in the first place. Education professor J.W. Getzels did some of the earliest research on creativity and questioning (which is interestly absent from Berger’s book) and found that those who took more time to find the best problem to solve – and thus, asked better and deeper questions of their world and subject matter — came up with more creative ideas than those who dove quickly into solving the problem as they initially saw it.

The simple take-away is: 

At the root of an answer is a question – J.W. Getzels

The better the question, the better the answer.

In complexity terms, the questions asked often create the path dependencies that entrench practices that come after it. So by asking better or ‘more beautiful’ questions and giving that attention we are not only doing ourselves a service, but are acting more ethical as well. This ethical foundation is what underlies mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on the importance of grounding oneself to ask better questions of the world, something that I’ve done through CENSE Research + Design in developing a mindful organization model.

In his 2004 presidential address to the Canadian Psychological Association Pat O’Neill looked at how sub-fields like community psychology changed the nature of how many “problems” in psychology were framed at the outset. Issues like poverty, drug addiction and unemployment were often (and still are in many domains) framed as personal, moral failings or just bad choices. By asking different questions of these problems, community psychologists were able to see how social policies, neighbourhood structures, social networks, and historical social exclusion — all systems issues — factor in to frame and constrain individual’s choices and risk behaviours. Suddenly, what had been framed as a personal problem, became a shared one that we all had at least some stake in.

It is this thinking that has led to greater awareness of how social change is inextricably linked to systems change and why we need to understand systems at the individual, organizational, community and societal level if we wish to address many of our social problems. Asking systems questions is asking different, sometimes more beautiful questions that get at the root of problems and inspire social innovation.

Finding the beautiful question

In his book, Berger finds that those best equipped to solve or at least address these big wicked questions in business, philanthropy and social innovation are those that ask ‘beautiful questions’ and do it often. Berger cites studies that have shown a clear relationship between success in leadership and a propensity to ask good questions. Asking good questions however takes time and the willingness to take time to question, think and question some more is another stand-out feature of these successful leaders.

It is why good questioning is also a leadership issue. Effective leaders often take the time needed to fully process the most important decisions to form what Gary Hamel and C.K. Pralahad refer to as strategic intent. Psychologist Daniel Goleman recently summarized the research linking mindfulness to focus and leadership, showing how leaders are able to better focus on what they do by being mindful. This mindful attention clears away much of the cognitive clutter to enable better question finding and asking.

Berger shows that finding the question requires some persistence. Good questioners are able to live with not having an answer or even the right question for a while. They have great patience. That ability to stand back and think, see, reflect and think some more while prototyping questions is what separates those who ask the better questions from those who don’t.

Creative collisions also helps. By mixing up ideas and connections with others, good questioners give themselves the raw material to work with. However, many of the best questioners that Berger spoke to also advocated for the need for some solitude and time to process these ideas and questions on their own. This mix of collaboration, collision, and independence is a key factor in developing the beautiful idea.

Designing better question-making

What jumped out at me in this book was how little support most organizations offer themselves for asking better, beautiful questions. Berger noted that the need for ‘serial mastery’ and constant learning is a staple of the new work environment, which should lend itself to question asking. However, if organizations are unwilling or unable to provide time for reflection, training, knowledge integration and ongoing discovery through better questions how likely is it that the workforce is going to respond to this need for new skills?

Are organizations willing to invest in a culture of inquiry? Are organizations able to make the leap from knowing things to asking things? How many public sector, non-profit, social and health service organizations (let alone industry groups) would be willing to follow companies like Google who create space — literally and figuratively — for questioning? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Berger’s book.

These are design questions. Berger notes how Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Montessori school graduates. The Montessori system of education is based on question asking and Google is run as an organization largely framed around questions (and queries as noted by the very notion of “googling” something). Google has been designed to support better questions in its literal architecture of its software, its hardware, its office space, and the ‘20 per cent time‘ they offer employees to explore questions they have and projects that are of personal importance to them.

True to the idea of questions being worthy of paying attention to, Warren Berger’s book is filled with them including some answers. I liked the book and believe that he has tapped into something very big. Whether or not organizations and leaders will be inspired to ask better questions from this or simply try to find better answers in the processes they have is perhaps the big question next.

On a related note, March 14th has been dubbed Question Day by Berger and his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, a non-profit organization that provides support for teachers and students to ask better questions in school as a foundation for a lifetime of learning. 

References:

Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Chand, I., & Runco, M. A. (1993). Problem finding skills as components in the creative process. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 155–162.

Getzels, J. W. (1979). Problem Finding: a Theoretical Note. Cognitive Science, 3(2), 167–172. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0302_4

Getzels, J. W. (1980). Problem Finding and Human Thought. The Educational Forum, 44(2), 243–244.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.

O’Neill, P. (2005). The ethics of problem definition. Canadian Psychology, 46(13-22).

Photo credit: Why? by Whitespeed via DeviantArt

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