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Questioning for innovation

by Gaylin Jee, @gaylinjee

Innovation is all about being that person who thinks about, asks and owns the answering of questions. The payoff to asking better questions is that we can tackle the unknown and find better solutions. Innovators move forward through questions. They ask – What if? Why?

As we grow from children into adults, we gradually learn that playing it safe has merits. Questions show weakness, ignorance and a potential lack of co-operation or willingness. Questions slow things down and introduce perceived inefficiencies. Most people respond over time by becoming more measured in the questions they ask. And some just stop questioning altogether. It is more comfortable and safe within the fold, keeping to the patterned efficiency that is mapped out for us, based on all we know already. But this approach comes at a huge cost. We lose our natural sense of wonder and exploration. And over time we become less prepared for the future unknowns, and not more, as we might believe.

Questions allow us to organise our thinking about what we do not know. Asking a good question can challenge a long-held wisdom, and put new perspective to the familiar. Questions help us to solve new and unfamiliar problems. Questions can change us, and the world around us.

If more beautiful questions have so much to offer us, particularly as we wake up to the imperative of ‘curiousity’ at work, why don’t we spend time thinking consciously about how we question, and aiming to improve the questions we ask? Encouraging questioning and developing skills in this art and science seem highly undervalued. What if we could harness the beautiful power of questions to move us into new dimensions?

Getting to more beautiful and purposeful questions – a few pointers

  • There is no right or wrong question, but a good question is rooted in an authentic curiosity. This is different to a criticism in disguise, or an ‘ask’ to prove a point.
  • Explore the question with the person who asks it. Turn the question around and out. Ask what everyone else thinks.
  • Encourage questions, and don’t think you always have to answer them. Encourage ownership of questions. Every innovator starts out with ownership of a question.\
  • Create a culture of valuing questions. There needs to be a better understanding of the value of questions and what questions do, so that they are better received, and so that we get better at asking them.
  • Don’t let questions become career limiting moves. Don’t label questioners as obstructive and disagreeable. Instead, support people in the practice of their skill to ask more beautiful questions, the kinds of questions that move us forward.
  • There is something to be said for the total novice or rookie, who poses the question that may seem ‘stupid’ but that actually naturally challenges accepted wisdom. Why have we always done it this way? Who comes to something with innocent eyes, and what questions do they have?
  • Encourage shared ownership of questions. This is sometimes referred to as collaborative enquiry, where everyone plays a part in answering the question. You can use techniques like Lego Serious Play to model the answering of questions, and to generate more questions to be asked.
  • Be conscious of what you think you already know. Our own depth of knowledge can conspire against questioning. A sense of knowing can mean we stop asking where it might matter most.
  • Practice your questioning and develop it like a skill. Questioning is one of the 5 skills of the Innovators DNA that can be learned and practiced.

Have a go at asking and answering these questions yourself, right now:
What is the big question in your organisation / your work … how might we / I? Can you turn your mission statement into a mission question? What if companies replaced their mission statement with a mission question, and then shared ownership for answering that question with the whole company? What impact would that have?

This post draws a lot on The Knowledge Project, Farnam Street Blog, by Shane Parrish, this episode: “Improve Your Life by Improving Your Questions”. The podcast is an interview with Warren Berger — journalist, speaker, author and self-proclaimed questionologist. Explore this topic in more depth by listening to the full podcast or read the book, A More Beautiful Question. It shows how the world’s leading innovators, education leaders, creative thinkers and start-ups ask game-changing questions to nurture creativity, solve problems and create new possibilities.

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Gaylin has a unique focus to her work: she assists individuals and organisations to positively disrupt their own futures. She founded and runs 33 Emeralds, a niche consultancy with a team of associates who have a common commitment – to craft better work so that we are excited, energized and make an impact, in whatever work we do.

Gaylin@gmail.com

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