How the Right Question Can Lead to a Breakthrough
“Questions are this great launching point. What questions do is enable us to organize the way we attack a problem or the way we deal with the unknown.”
- Warren Berger
After years of writing about innovation, design, and creativity for publications like Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, Warren Berger became deeply curious about the importance of questions. He now studies questions—why people ask questions, what stops them from asking questions, and what kind of questions seem to be most powerful. Many of his findings are detailed in his recent book A More Beautiful Question.
We connected with Warren to discuss how questions lead to innovation, his take on the value of creativity, and how he’s spreading the spirit of questioning.
Tell us about some of your favorite questions?
One of my favorite questions is the question that led to the Polaroid Instant Camera back in the 1940s. The four-year-old daughter of the founder of Polaroid asked, Why do we have to wait for the picture? It’s no coincidence that a four-year-old girl asked an amazing question, in my research I’ve found that four-year-old girls are the best question askers in the world. Something happens around age four or five; it happens for both boys and girls, but girls even more. Age four or five is a questioning peak period for human beings.
One of the reasons why four-year-olds are good at asking questions is because they don't have a lot of assumptions and they look at things with a beginner's mind. The rest of us tend to assume. If we were living in the 1940s and we'd been using cameras, we would just assume you have to wait for the picture and that's the way it is and we probably wouldn't question it. But a four-year-old child looks at it and asks this obvious question that no one else is asking, why should we have to wait? That doesn't make sense to me. I'd rather not wait. Great questions can almost be obvious but you need to see things with a fresh eye in order to see the question and then ask it. It's a natural gift kids have and unfortunately, our education system and our culture tend not to foster it.
“When you arrive at an interesting question and take ownership of that question, it can lead you to innovation.”
What started you on the path of writing about innovation, design, and questioning?
I was always interested in what enables someone to be more creative and to come up with ideas. When I became a journalist, that became an area I gravitated toward—trying to understand creativity, talking about people who are creative, and looking at how they create and their habits and ways.
A theme that kept emerging was inventive and creative people tend to be great questioners. They ask a lot of questions. They usually ask interesting questions and then go to work on those questions. I felt this wasn't talked about enough in the world of innovation, that maybe questions were not getting enough emphasis.
What is the power behind questions?
Questions are this great launching point. What questions do is enable us to organize the way we attack a problem or the way we deal with the unknown. We usually do it through this tool of questioning that we've had since childhood. When you trace back innovations to the starting point, there is often a question someone was asking, Why hasn't anybody dealt with this problem, or, What if you came at this situation by doing X and combining it with Y?
Many things begin with a question. It's this catalytic force. When you arrive at an interesting question and take ownership of that question, it can lead you to innovation. If you’re in the world of the arts, finding a great question can lead you to a great work of art. It's this amazing thing that challenges you. The question then becomes the problem that you have to solve. It's a puzzle and it will lead you to do amazing things. That’s what I've been preaching. We need to find those questions for ourselves in our work, in our lives, and in terms of solving world problems.
“Creativity has this amazing power to give you renewed enthusiasm and energy—even in the most difficult circumstances.”
Why creativity now more than ever?
From a competitive standpoint and a business success or career success standpoint, it's one of the most important tools you can have. It's the way you can distinguish yourself—the way you can innovate. Creativity now more than ever is the competitive tool that’s going to make a difference. Whether you're an entrepreneur, a large company, or a solo creative person, it's what makes you stand out.
The other part of why creativity now, is in today's world, we're all under a lot of pressure. We're all under a lot of demands and the thing that energizes us and keeps us going strong is creativity. Creativity has this amazing power to give you renewed enthusiasm and energy—even in the most difficult circumstances. It works on two different levels. One is purely the fact that it will help you succeed as a competitive tool, but the other is that it's going to energize you. It's going to make you feel better. It's going to make you feel like you want to push forward even when times are tough. That's why it's more important now than ever.
What’s something you’re working on now with your own personal leadership style?
One of the things I’m working on is what I would call consistent enthusiasm. I find that enthusiasm tends to come in waves. My leadership role is to go out into the world and talk to groups about an idea I want them to embrace. The only way they're going to embrace that idea is if they see I'm excited about it and I totally believe in it—that it's my life's mission and I'm convinced it works and is important. Unless I convey that to people, they're probably not going to buy this idea.
Every time I go out there, I need to have the highest level of enthusiasm and I'm trying to figure out how to do that. It can be tough. I've heard people say the biggest thing you have to do is convince yourself of the importance of what you're doing; then it will motivate you and other people will see it and follow you and embrace what you're doing. You have to start with yourself.
“What helps people move forward, jump into the void, try new things, and learn and solve problems is curiosity.”
If you had a magic wand, what would you do to design a world where anyone could build creative confidence to solve real world challenge?
Two things that come to mind immediately is the wand would have to minimize fear and maximize curiosity. If we had a wand that when you waved it over people their fear level would go down and their curiosity level would go up, that would be a big first step toward a better world and solving problems. Much of what keeps people from moving forward and solving problems are various forms of fear. What helps people move forward, jump into the void, try new things, and learn and solve problems is curiosity.
The curiosity factor is huge in terms of driving us to say, Gee, I wonder why this situation exists. I'm going to learn more about it and then my curiosity's going to grow, and I'm going to begin to think about ways to change the situation. I'll learn even more, and then I'll just continue on this journey until something interesting happens. A lot of that is driven by our curiosity, which then fuels our creativity. That's what leads us to amazing things.
Learn about leading through questions in our upcoming Leading for Creativity course.
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