The art of asking smart questions

This is an English translation of our article "Wieso, weshalb, warum? Wer nicht fragt, bleibt dumm!" regarding the subject of asking smart questions issued in the new business vol. 36, strategy corner 31.08.2015 

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Asking questions is a basic skill of human beings, with which they can comprehend their environment. However, the opportunity to ask questions is much too rare during our business day. We mostly operate in a kind of autopilot mode and do not question the things we do. Where does this phenomenon come from? To better understand it, we must take a look into our past.

Negative connotation of questions

With the German Sesame Street theme song "who, how, why, what … one who does not ask questions, remains dumb“ we are motivated as children to ask questions. But questions often have a negative connotation in our society. Questions convey cluelessness while answers provide knowledge. Questions make us feel insecure. Responses put our mind at ease. Questions are frowned upon and not without risk: if you ask, you must also anticipate a possible backslash, because authorities might feel challenged. Asking questions is not socially desirable/acceptable. But why exactly?

One reason lies in our education system. Children are still intuitively challenging the world to learn new things and to continue to further develop. Scientists have found out that an average four year old child aged asks about 390 questions a day. However, our educational system is geared towards trimming responses. The one who knows the right answer is rewarded and not the one who asks the right question. Questions are a teacher's right, not the student's. Any inquiry could imply a possible loss of control for the teacher. In the course of growing up, we increasingly lose this gift, since it is systematically unlearned. This is still noticeable today in companies, because these teachers trained the majority of the present leading generation.

The revival of the art of asking intelligent questions

The innovation guru Clayton Christensen notes that questions are still regarded as "inefficient" by many CEOs. It is much easier if we do not question things. For this reason, a company culture has been consciously or unconsciously established in many companies, which prevents their employees from asking questions. Executives are so concerned about acting and do something that they often feel they do not have the time to distance themselves from their actions to reflect what they are doing and to consider whether they are still on track. The "operational-excellence-modus" contributes to this.

Today, more than ever, it is important to revive the "art of intelligent questions" in order to arrive at innovative solutions. Up to now most of the times the person who knew how things were going was the most successful one. However, in a digitized world, information have become a mass commodity, which is available around the clock without any restrictions. This inflation of the collective knowledge ensures that the quality of the question increases proportionally inversely. Only the one who asks, opens up spaces, and E.E. Cummings already knew: "A beautiful answer always comes to the one who asks a more beautiful question." In concrete terms, it makes more sense to deal with the question for a longer time than with research : "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on finding a solution/an answer, I would spend the first 55 minutes looking for the right question, because with the right question I can solve the problem in less than five minutes. "(Albert Einstein)

Standardized patterns of thought need to be abandoned

A culture of asking questions will be vital for businesses to survive. If we want to set something in motion and change it we must consciously eliminate the autopilot and re-train our reflexes. This works best when we leave our habitual patterns of thinking and spend more time with questions. Prof. Dr. Jürgen Werner writes: "Thinking strategically means always giving priority to the question before the answer. Contrary to a well-considered prejudice in the economy, the strategist is less oriented towards solutions, because he is interested in resolutions. Nothing disturbs him more than laid down pattern of thoughts, standards and stereotypes."

Smart questions therefore have a special power. They encourage us to think differently about the present and the future. With their help, we are able to look at familiar situations as if they were new to leave beaten paths. Steve Jobs for example was a great follower of the Buddhist principle called "Shoshin," the "spirit of the beginner." The basis for this way of thinking is the ability to ask fundamental questions. With them we can dig for new ideas and track down unseen opportunities and possibilities: „Most of the innovative entrepreneurs we interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture.“

To celebrate the art of asking clever questions

But what is the distinguishing element of an intelligent question? Warren Berger, the author of „A More Beautiful Question" defines it as follows: "A clever question is a challenging but practical question. It can change the way we perceive something or think about something. And this can help to bring a change. "A well-posed question should therefore always be understood as a compliment and an invitation to a change in perspective. And it is worthwhile to sometimes play the stupid one to become smarter in the end. We should transform this ancient human form of communication into the essential tool and take more time to celebrate the "art of asking questions" more frequently in business life. The resulting gold nuggets can be developed into visionary strategies and solutions for products, companies and people.

In this spirit: any questions?