Jan 29, 2016

"What If" is the Most Beautiful Question

Warren Berger in "A More Beautiful Question" discusses the why and how of asking questions, which happens to be my number one favorite topic, across contexts and roles I've been in, both personal and professional.  Questioning is an inherent skill, according to W. Berger, and  we’re quite adept at it during childhood. You can disagree with that (I'm not totally convinced that that's "inherent" or inevitable) but that's not the point. The point is, as W. Berger notes, that children haven’t developed a solid “mental model” of the world, so they [can] question everything. As children grow up and go through standardized education, they begin to suppress their curiosity, however inherent and inevitable it might have been.

What's really frustrating, and the point of relevant here, is that in certain cultures (US/American being the first on that list), it’s frowned upon to ask too many questions, socially, and also in the workplace. And paradoxically enough, we’re often embarrassed when we don’t have immediate answers. But Berger claims the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers, but can ask better questions, is a superior skill. Actually, he's not a alone in this, and that skill of admitting to uncertainty and open-ended curiosity is hardly original but, unfortunately, rare in the workplace and in multiple non-professional socio-cultural contexts.

Berger identifies three  types of questions that lead to breakthroughs: why, how, what if? The first two are commonsense and often inevitable, but the 3rd one is less often entertained in professional contexts. Asking "what if" and more crucially, encouraging whoever you supervise or manage to ask "what if" questions is really where innovation begins.  "What if" is about mashing up ideas, go against common logic, or add/remove factors that make the challenge more interesting.