My new favorite book, Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question, hits on a topic very near and dear to me – Questioning. In an era where we talk so much about customer-driven innovation, I have seen precious little actual customer research performed by agencies, consulting firms, companies and brands. Instead, they position themselves as “experts” and rebuff any possible suggestion that more would be learned from asking than from pontificating. Berger brilliantly explores this modern-day business problem, discusses the reasons why many of us lose our childlike ability to ask up to 400 questions per day, and explains how reversing this trend may be what is critically necessary to succeed in today’s world.
Why don’t we ask “why?” more often? How about what, where, when or how? Berger’s research reveals that one of the key characteristics of successful business leaders have is that they are excellent at asking questions, and found that their innovative breakthroughs could be traced back to those questions. On the other hand, he also discovered that very few companies “actually encouraged questioning in any substantive way, and had no departments, training programs, policies, guidelines or best practices focused on questioning. On the contrary, many companies – whether consciously or not – have established cultures that tend to discourage inquiry in the form of someone’s asking, for example, ‘Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?’”
Running Confidently with Scissors
Throughout my 25 years in digital design, I’ve encountered an overabundance of clients who had no appetite for questions, had no budget or time for customer research, and who simply wanted to drive forward with a project idea that they saw in the latest trendy tech journal or stole from a competitor. Executive-driven decisions rather than customer-centric design. Alas, most of these projects did not succeed in the ways that they should have, solely because the project solution was not answering the right questions.
Business today runs at the speed of light, usually with sharp scissors in each hand, trying to get positive progress in any and every way possible. “Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.”, Benjamin Franklin keenly observed, yet we run amok with misguided answers to the wrong queries. How might we slow down – or even back up – so that we can ask the necessary questions to ensure that we’re headed in the right direction in the first place?
Fear of Not Knowing
Berger reveals a variety of insidious barriers to proper questioning, noting, “Those in leadership roles frequently perceive (often correctly) that questioning can be hazardous to one’s career: that to raise a hand in the conference room and ask ‘Why?’ is to risk being seen as uninformed, or possibly insubordinate, or maybe both.” Citing research from Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen and Jeff Dyer, “As recently documented in a fascinating research study of thousands of top business executives – the most creative, successful business leaders have tended to be expert questioners. They’re known to question the conventional wisdom of their industry, the fundamental practices of their company, even the validity of their own assumptions.” … “[Questioning] has not slowed their rise in business – rather, it has ‘turbocharged’ it.”
Embrace Our Ignorance
A similar argument is made by Ed Catmull, in his behind-the-scenes Pixar book, Creativity, Inc., “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.” Without this culture of candor, no questions are asked. But creating this culture of openness, trust and humility takes more courage than many leaders are willing to demonstrate.
At Spelunk, we start with questions and don’t take the “expert” stance with regards to our clients’ businesses. Berger quotes Frank Lloyd Wright’s wry observation, “An expert is someone who has stopped thinking because he ‘knows’,” as a way to expose those who would rather recommend a quick fix “just like we did on our last project” rather than take the time to find the “beautiful” question to answer. Instead, we help our clients create a culture of questioning so that they can find the right questions – and thus, the right answers – faster and easier. Love this book!