The Value of Questions
‘I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.’
There is tremendous value in asking questions, it is a broadly rewarding learning process and means of progress. Asking questions is a sign of mental activity and active engagement with your surroundings and the problems faced therein. Questioning is a clear indicator of curiosity, which is one of the central tenants of creativity, critical thinking and innovation. It is the responsibility of the innovator, to remain not just curious, but actively curious. If you aren’t engaged, then you simply won’t have the right questions. Active engagement piques curiosity, the more eclectic your interests and experiences, the more unique your questions become. Most importantly, you don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions, whether they are questions of others, or of yourself.
In basic communication, asking questions is a sign of interest and the first step in displaying empathy. Empathy and questioning, in a diverse group, allows you to borrow, or ‘appropriate’ experience and use that as a learning advantage. In terms of entrepreneurship, questioning and empathy are fundamental to client-centric engagement. In hermeneutics and dialectics, we talk about the ‘’fusion of horizons.’ Essentially meaning, while we can never truly remove ourselves from our own beginning, we are trying to understand the experience of another through objective questioning. Starting from a position of, 'I don't know, but I'm willing to learn,' is a powerful place to stand.
‘The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point... A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him.’
The online retailer, Littlewoods, claims that their research indicates children ask approx. 390 questions per day. This suggests a number of separate factors, first, children are hard work, but they are also curious and learning, and questions facilitate learning. When the response to a question fails to satisfy their curiosity sufficiently or fulfill their requirements, they ask more questions. They are comfortable with being in need, they’re going to keep asking questions, egoless and tenacious in their pursuit of knowledge. Questions fuel their unyielding imaginations, every day is a voyage of discovery.
Children don’t necessarily partake in the hierarchical and competitive struggles that diminish our opportunities to question as adults. I wonder how many people reading this have nodded to affirm their understanding, when they didn’t understand? I know I have, and then kicked myself for not asking more questions. I should probably know better than most, as a critical thinker, but I still occasionally nod and forego an opportunity to learn. I try to rectify this whenever possible, but it happens, human error.
Doesn’t it seem perfectly reasonable to ask questions when there is a knowledge gap? And yet, adults ask far fewer questions than children, and not because we don’t have knowledge gaps. Clearly the concept of psychological safety, and the lack thereof, is relevant but it appears our natural inclination towards hierarchical and competitive thinking, has a tendency to override our desire to advance our knowledge. Even in ‘safe spaces,’ the creation of which being something I pride myself on, there is inhibition. Often I have found this to be a matter of self-regulation or self-monitoring. I have had sidebar conversations where a client has asked an exceptional question which has led to an interesting line of thought, but when they return to the group, the are initially unwilling to repeat the question or line of thought, and this is in groups that are in great need, and open to unusual questions or new lines of thought. Asking questions is wrongly perceived by some as a sign of weakness, especially in the wrong environment, namely, where psychological safety isn't assured.
Most people ask questions simply to derive specific answers, which is essentially convergent. As a critical thinker, creative and innovator, a rewarding approach is to begin by asking questions to identify hidden opportunities or uncontested market spaces, divergence. By questioning, you're identifying more opportunities to improve and refine your process/product. My preferred question is Why? A simple question, but an effective question. I always want to know the ‘why?’ Why is your company doing it this? Why do we think the way we do? Why? I generally follow a series of why questions, with ‘what?’ What can we do to improve this, what can we do to change this, what can we add, what can we take away, what is the goal? What happened that we achieved this goal but not that goal? And why did we allow that to happen? And of course, 'what if?' In my role, I use questions to challenge assumptions, to help clients recognise when cultural convention and mental models are overriding or obscuring an opportunity to innovate.
I love being in a room where I am surrounded by people with knowledge and skills I don’t have, which is why I’m so fond of working with people from STEM backgrounds. I’m secure in asking value orientated prompt questions and I’m secure in asking questions that are occasionally perceived as being ‘dumb. I’m secure in this because I know I have a contributing role, evidenced by past experience. There’s no expectation, I openly acknowledge/admit, that I have in the past electrocuted myself fixing a simple plug. My strength is in deconstructing cultural paradigms, identifying the patterns in an intertextual nexus, or seeing the relationship between certain products in a specific ecosystem and the corresponding attitudes. These spaces free me to ask as many questions as I feel is necessary. Sometimes I ask questions purely to drive a client towards developing a more simplified means of communicating a concept or product. I know the value of questions, so I bring that value to the equation.
During a recent workshop, I offered the statement, ‘Military Service should be compulsory.’ In the following session, a participant was steadfast in the belief that this should not be so. Excellent I thought as I began to enquire what informed this position. ‘I don’t think women should be sent to war.’ I have used this statement in workshops on countless occasions, and I have never heard this answer before. I asked again, ‘why? What is it about your experience of females to date that informs this position?’ (I personally found this interesting as he was quite young, in his 20's) I further enquired, offering that, I have coached female fighters more capable of combat than most guys, and it only takes about 6lbs of pressure to pull a trigger, well within the capability of most people. The response was enlightening and confounding in equal measure. Adopting a posture to match his tone, his declared, ‘Women are to be cherished!’ Generally, I see this as an opportunity to unravel and reflect on a statement, to discover what informs this attitude. It is important when questioning, and reflecting, that we break our statements down into two groups, facts and assumptions. This makes the questioning process a little more direct.
Recently I met a guy who has built a successful career in branding, despite his primary degree being zoology. What became immediately obvious was that this gentleman was powered by curiosity. His questions were designed to drive beyond the immediate answer. There was an openness to the abstract and ambiguous, and a comfort and security in his desire to know more. His approach to his own business was clearly underlined by an immense and rewarding curiosity. It was absolutely no surprise that he had successfully traversed the great chasm between zoology and branding with the support of his curiosity.
According to Lou H. Thompson, writing as far back as 1924, ‘The teacher's work is to create a situation which will arouse interest and call forth the desired mental activity in response.’ As an innovation consultant with a strong focus on creativity and critical thinking, I often take that statement as my personal lead. I would argue that each and every person, especially, innovators, leaders and teachers, should take responsibility for creating the situation that will arouse their own required interest, to develop the desired mental activity, otherwise, how do we expect our teams to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, the processes required to create innovation.