Why the Best Innovators Ask the Most Beautiful Questions

Warren Berger believes questions are more important than answers. A best-selling author and self-proclaimed “questionologist,” Warren is on a mission to help all leaders learn how to use questioning to support innovative, resilient and adaptive organizations.

We caught up with Warren recently to ask him about why it’s more important than ever to lean into questioning and curiosity.

Lisa Kay Solomon: Your recent book is called A More Beautiful Question. Can you talk about what a “beautiful question” is and why they are so important to ask?

Warren Berger: I am particularly interested in questions that lead to innovation. So, I studied a lot of those kinds of questions to see what they had in common and arrived at this definition: A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can shift the way we think about something and may serve as a catalyst for change.

Each aspect is important. “Ambitious” because we have to ask bold questions to innovate. “Actionable” because big questions we can’t do anything about don’t lead to change. Critically, the question has to cause a mental shift—it makes you step back and say, “Hmmm, that’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about this question before, and I want to explore it further.”

These kinds of questions are the starting point of innovation and growth, which is why every leader should be asking them and encouraging others to ask them.

LKS: How does questioning help us become better innovators?

WB: Questioning helps us become more comfortable and proactive in dealing with the unknown, which is critical for innovators. Innovators often operate in a realm where the solution to a particular problem is unknown or may even seem impossible.

The innovator’s job is to explore that unknown and arrive at a completely new and original answer. Questions can help the innovator keep moving forward; you start with one question, then that can lead you to a better, deeper question, and so on. You could almost think of questioning as “an app for the unknown.”

When you finally arrive at the answer—the innovation—it may seem the questioning is over. But it isn’t really. Soon, the innovator is wondering how to make their creation even better, more affordable—how they can expand upon it.

For true innovators, the cycle of questioning never ends.

LKS: Are you seeing technology change the type of questions we should be asking?

WB: Technology has thrown everything open to question because everything we thought we knew how to do can now be done differently. The shoe-retailer must ask a whole new set of questions as new technology revolutionizes that business. And it’s like that in every category—everything is being reinvented, and then reinvented again.

You might think this would cause us to ask more technical questions, but I also find it’s causing us to ask more basic questions, like “What business am I really in?” When you find your industry and your customer’s lifestyle are being reinvented, you have to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions.

Warren Berger.

LKS: In AMBQ, you advocate for turning mission statements into mission questions. Can you share more about why that’s so important? 

WB: Research suggests questions are more engaging and motivational than statements because they are more open-ended and invite participation. Mission statements might be better phrased as questions that start, for example, with the words “How might we.”

Let’s say a robotics company’s statement is, “We make the world a better place through robotics.” That doesn’t sound very credible, and it also sounds like they’ve already done it. “How might we make the world a better place through robotics?” is more open-ended, forward-looking—and it invites people to help answer the question.

LKS: What are the most important questions leaders should start to ask themselves now?

WB: One big question they could ask is, “How might I foster a culture of inquiry?”

To do this, leaders must lead by example. They need to ask big questions in front of others and exhibit their own curiosity. But they also need to encourage others to question more. Even though a leader can (and should) serve as the “Questioner in Chief,” the real potential is when people at all levels wonder and inquire together.

In the book, I refer to this as “collaborative inquiry.” When lots of people are asking their own questions and also working together on big, shared “How might we” questions, you have a great breeding ground for innovation and growth. Plus, you’re more likely to have a highly-engaged workforce. When people are curious and asking questions, they’re more intellectually engaged.

LKS: How can leaders build skills and incentivize questioning throughout their companies? 

WB: Talk to people about the kinds of questions the company is most interested in. Give examples and stories to help them understand the difference between high potential questions and less powerful or useful questions.

You can also do question-formulation exercises—basically, “question-storming” where you train people to come up with questions instead of ideas. This gets people used to asking questions quickly on any challenge, but you can also use the exercises to teach them how to refine and improve their questions.

To incentivize asking questions, make sure you share and celebrate the great questions people come up with. And try not to punish questioning, by saying things like, “Don’t bring me questions, bring me answers!” There can be real value in someone bringing you a question, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect them to have the answer immediately or by themselves.

If it’s a big enough “beautiful question,” it might end up being something the whole organization goes to work answering!

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa Kay Solomonhttp://lisakaysolomon.com/
Lisa Kay Solomon is a well-known thought leader in design innovation with a focus on helping leaders learn how to be more creative, flexible and resilient in the face of constant change. Lisa is the Chair of Transformational Practices and Leadership at Singularity University a global community of smart, passionate, action-oriented leaders who want to use exponential technologies to positively impact the world. She coauthored the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change, and more recently, Design a Better Business: New Tools, Skills and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation. Lisa is a frequent keynote speaker on innovation, design thinking and leadership at global conferences and business schools. A passionate educator, Lisa has taught at the revolutionary Design MBA program at California College of the Arts and has developed and led popular classes for Stanford d. School such as Networking By Design and Design With the Brain in Mind. She is also the Executive Producer of the annual Inspired4Schools conference, a design leadership program for educators, and is on the leadership committee for The Nueva School’s Innovative Learning Conference, a biennial gathering for trends related to the future of education.
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