In the 2 July 2016 edition of the New York Times, Warren Berger, the author of “A More Beautiful Question” (Bloomsbury USA), wrote an article entitled “The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’” You can read the full article here.
Berger opening line was that he recently had a conversation with a chief executive who expressed concern about several of her senior managers. “They were smart, experienced, competent. So what was the problem? ‘They’re not asking enough questions,’ she said.”
Berger continued: “This wouldn’t have been a bad thing in the business world of a few years ago, where the rules for success were: Know your job, do your work, and if a problem arises, solve it and don’t bother us with a lot of questions.
“But increasingly I’m finding that business leaders want the people working around them to be more curious, more cognizant of what they don’t know, and more inquisitive — about everything, including ‘Why am I doing my job the way I do it?’ and ‘How might our company find new opportunities?’
Berger comments that “there are real forces in business today that are causing people to value curiosity and inquiry more than in the past,” as “companies in many industries today must contend with rapid change and rising uncertainty. In such conditions, even a well-established company cannot rest on its expertise; there is pressure to keep learning what’s new and anticipating what’s next. It’s hard to do any of that without asking questions.
Berger shared that in his research for his book, he studied business breakthroughs and found that in each breakthrough, “some curious soul looked at a current problem and asked insightful questions about why that problem existed and how it might be tackled.”
Berger’s favorite story was “The Polaroid story”. The instant camera was inspired by a question by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin H. Land – Land’s daughter was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she wondered aloud: “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”
Berger states that “research shows that question-asking peaks at age 4 or 5 and then steadily drops off, as children pass through school (where answers are often more valued than questions) and mature into adults. By the time we’re in the workplace, many of us have gotten out of the habit of asking fundamental questions about what’s going on around us. And some people worry that asking questions at work reveals ignorance or may be seen as slowing things down.”
To encourage people to ask more questions, Berger shares that there are simple ways to train people to do so: “For example, question formulation exercises can be used as a substitute for conventional brainstorming sessions. The idea is to put a problem or challenge in front of a group of people and instead of asking for ideas, instruct participants to generate as many relevant questions as they can.”
Berger comments that “for questioning to thrive in a company, management must find ways to reward the behaviour — if only by acknowledging the good questions that have been asked.”
He further shares the importance for leaders to walk the talk, and “encourage companywide questioning by being more curious and inquisitive themselves.” Berger comments: “[Leaders] could set a better example by asking ‘why’ and ‘what if’ — while asking others to do likewise. And as the questions proliferate, some good answers are likely to follow.”
In the Toyota Production System, one of the principle for getting to the root of problems is to ask “Why?” five times. If we do not get to the root of a problem, we cannot develop fundamentally sound improvements and innovations. We should never be satisfied with superficial answers.
For example, if we were to see a man collapsing in a room, someone may tell us he has had a heart attack. If we are satisfied with that answer, we will never discover what can be done to improve the situation in future. If we keep asking “Why?”, we will get to points about cholesterol and diet and exercise and lifestyle, and at that point we would have learnt something which we can use to make our lives better, and the man’s heart attack would have yielded some useful benefits to those around.
As leaders, we need to create a good environment for getting ideas for improvement and innovation. And we need ourselves to set a good example.
Learn the art of bringing out good questions! Not asking questions may reduce the risk of looking stupid, but that itself is stupidity.