How Creative Leaders Tap Into the Power of Questions

“If you’re human, you’re creative.”
—Warren Berger, Innovation Expert & Author

Innovation expert and author Warren Berger has spent years studying how questions can transform our business and personal lives and tap into our creative potential. In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, he shares insights from his new book, The Book of Beautiful Questions, featuring hundreds of big and small questions that harness the magic of inquiry to tackle challenges we all face—at work, in our relationships, and beyond.

Getting older has its perks. But it also makes it tough to maintain a mindset of curiosity and openness. “Children are great questioners, and as they get older they question less. The same thing is true with companies,” says Warren Berger, innovation expert and author of The Book of Beautiful Questions.

Warren has studied the power of questions for many years, speaking with innovators, executives, and creatives to uncover the secret to their success...namely, their skilled use of inquiry for creative problem-solving.

But all questions aren’t created equal. There is such a thing as a bad question, and knowing how to spot the signs of a detrimental question—one that’s off-topic, overly aggressive, or criticism in disguise (aka a “fake question”)—can help you ask a better one.

What makes a good question?

A good question should be designed as a learning mechanism. The natural cycle of human problem-solving lends itself to three types of questions that are helpful at different points in the process. “Why?” questions help to understand the problem, need, or opportunity and set the scene. “What if?” questions spark new ideas and encourage brainstorming. “How?” questions help you narrow in on the best ideas and get practical about implementing them. Although it’s fun, make sure not to get stuck in the “What if?” stage for too long or you risk getting sidetracked. This three-step method works for almost anything.

“It’s about how human beings solve problems—first they have to understand, then imagine, then do,” Warren says.

“When you’re questioning other people it can be a confrontational form of communication,” Warren says. Avoid offending or having your question misinterpreted by beginning with curiosity—“Everyone wants to help someone who’s curious,” he says. Then help them understand the positive motivation behind the question. For example, “I’m wondering how you choose that approach. The reason I’m asking is that if I can understand the factors that are important to you, I can better incorporate them into my next project.”

Questions to tap into your creativity

The four areas where Warren sees questions having the most impact are in decision-making, relationships, creativity, and leadership. For creativity, questions hold the power to either squash or unleash it.

Creativity Killer Questions

The difference between a bad question and a good one is sometimes only a word or two—the motivations behind it carry far more impact. To make these bad questions better, try remixing them into more helpful combinations. “If you’re human, you’re creative,” Warren says. So instead of asking “Am I creative?” ask “How am I creative?”

Asking “Where will I find the time to create?” implies you don’t have the time now, or that you need to magically find more. Instead, Warren says to focus on reallocating your time and being intentional about the way you set up your day. Paul Graham of Y Combinator’s manager vs. maker schedule is a good framework to reference—managers work well with many small blocks of time for meetings, but creatives need big blocks of uninterrupted time to do their best work.

The hardest part of any creative project is often just getting started. To overcome creative blocks, try asking these six questions.

Questions to Ask If You're Having Trouble Starting

If you’re chasing butterflies, you may be distracted by pretty, new ideas instead of pursuing an existing project. If you’re rearranging the bookshelves, you’re likely stalling by “preparing to create.” By lowering the bar, you’re allowing yourself to start with a scrappy idea.

“As you go from the beautiful, original idea in your head to making it real, it’s going to be hard because it won’t seem as perfect as it was in your head,” Warren says. Acknowledging that the process will be messy can help you get started.

Leading through questions

There are two kinds of questions—the questions you ask yourself, and the questions you ask others. “The questions you ask yourself are going to determine what you do with your life,” Warren says. “The questions you ask others are going to affect your relationships with people.”

As a leader, the questions you ask yourself can help define your motivations and values and power your focus. Warren says to start there, then look outward—but when you do ask questions of others, be careful about putting people on the defensive. Check your tone and make sure that when you’re addressing issues—which is necessary and unavoidable—you’re also bringing a positive mindset and pushing your team to draw learnings from every failure.

Questions for a Leader to Ask

It’s one thing to ask questions as a leader and another to actively encourage others to ask them of you. Fostering a culture of questions, where they’re not only allowed but even rewarded, will help your organization embrace inquiry as a good thing and begin to use it to broaden their thinking and lead their teams to new ideas.

To begin building a practice of questioning into your work, try flipping goal statements into questions—“How might I do ___?” instead of “I want to do ___.”—and letting your curiosity lead the way.

To learn more about using questions to guide and motivate others, check out our 5-week online course Leading for Creativity, part of our Foundations in Creative Leadership Certificate.

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