Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

September 2014

Using the Power of Questions to Think Deeper, Act Faster, and Create Better

By Michelle Russell

As a journalist, questions are Warren Berger’s stock-in-trade. But what struck him when he interviewed software and product designers for Wired and other magazines was the way they used questions to launch their creative process. Not only was the context different than his interview process, so was the nature of their questions.

“They asked, ‘Why isn’t this situation working as well as it could?’” Berger told Convene. “Or, ‘Why isn’t there a product that does X, Y, or Z?’ ‘What if you took this existing thing and you redesigned it so it worked better?’ They were always trying to frame the right question to solve.” Asking “stupid questions,” one designer told Berger, was an important part of his job, “because no one else will ask them.” That notion “got in my head,” Berger said. “I started thinking, well, if questioning really is at the root of design, then more broadly, you could say it’s at the root of creative problem-solving and creating new things, new possibilities.”

Learn More: Listen to a podcast where Senior Editor Barbara Palmer and Editor in Chief Michelle Russell discuss so-called "dumb" questions

Fascinated with the power of questioning “as a way of looking at the world,” he spoke to more than a hundred business innovators, scientists, artists, engineers, filmmakers, educators, designers, and social entrepreneurs, and distilled their ideas into a practical “why/what if/how” system of inquiry — the backbone of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Recently published, the book has received acclaim in media outlets including Fast Company, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

We were born, Berger says, to ask questions, but that instinct gets squelched as we move through the education system and into the workforce. One possible reason, he writes in the book, is that “questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.” Which can be a luxury in today’s fast-paced business environment, where, Berger writes, “We operate on autopilot — which can help us to save mental energy, allow us to multitask, and enable us to get through the daily grind.”

But getting through the daily grind is not the same thing as getting ahead. We can only innovate if we learn how to form and tackle what Berger calls “big, beautiful questions.”
Just what is a beautiful question? And how can it transform business — and the meetings industry in particular? Here’s what Berger told Convene.

Did you initially plan to focus exclusively on innovation in the book?

My whole initial focus was, where does questioning fit in that area of innovation and design and problem-solving? What is the role of questioning? Then as I got into it, I realized there is so much interesting stuff with questioning. It pulled me into the idea that questioning is not just about your business. It’s about your life. Then I got into the education part, realizing that if you’re going to talk about questioning, you have to go back to childhood and the fact that we start out as natural questioners.

It started to move in all of these different directions as I was working on it. And really one of the challenges in the book was to not go in too many directions. I eventually just said, okay, I’m going to break it down into four parts. I’m going to try to convince people why questioning is important and why it is underappreciated. I’m going to talk about education, and the fact that we start out questioning and then we seem to question less and less as we get older, and [the traditional] education [system] may be a part of that. Then I’m going to talk about what this all means in business, because questioning is so important in business. Then I’m going to wrap up by talking about questioning in our lives. So that was sort of the way that I came at the book.

You define a “beautiful question” in the book as a big, ambitious question that can be acted upon. That’s an important distinction, because that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be answered.

Exactly right. I wanted to make a distinction between the kind of questions I’m talking about and philosophical questions, because I didn’t want to get into [questions like], “Why are we here on Earth?” or “What is the meaning of life?” I don’t have any problem with those kinds of questions, but to me those are different — they are spiritual or philosophical. They’re not questions that you’re going to necessarily act upon to bring about change. They are just questions that you may ruminate on for your whole life, but they’re not actionable.

One of the ideas you discuss in the book is how important it is to frame things the right way during brainstorming — or “question storming,” as you call it; changing the phrasing from “How can we…?” or “How should we…?” to “How might we…?” Yet you say that this approach doesn’t work on problems that are too broad or too narrow. Can you elaborate?

Well, first of all, “How might we…?” is a really interesting brainstorming approach that I discovered was being used at Google and at [the design firm] IDEO. What they figured out was just by using that language it seemed to open things up — using the word “might” gave people permission to explore and to not feel that they had to come up with the answer, that it was more of an open process of considering possibilities. It seemed to free up the conversation, that it’s really effective. That is one thing: getting the language right.
Then — this comes back to being actionable — you want to take on a problem or a challenge that you can begin to move forward on. Therefore, you don’t want your “How might we…?” question to be too unrealistic, like, “How might we create world peace tomorrow?” — because there’s nowhere to go with that. It’s too big. It’s too ambitious. It’s too broad.

There also are questions that I think aren’t ambitious enough: “How might we paint the walls a nicer color in our office?” or even “How might we raise the profit margin by .5 percent this quarter?” To me those questions [involve] things you’ve got to deal with in everyday business life, but they’re not really the kind of questions that are going to get people inspired and excited.

So the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where you’re thinking about something that is ambitious in terms of maybe a new way of doing something for your company or your industry or your business. It’s a new spin on something, but it’s not so outrageously ambitious that you can’t begin to take steps on it. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re getting together as a group. You’re saying, “How might we find a way to get our customers more engaged in X?” You’re trying to find that nice, middle ground that is both ambitious and actionable.

You say in the book that questions that are good for running a business — like, “How much is this going to cost us?” or “Who is responsible for this?” — are not necessarily good for leading it. Because they lack ambition?

Exactly. Those are the questions businesses are used to asking: How long is it going to take? Who is going to do it? Those are all practical questions that have

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