October 30, 2018
Excerpts: The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead
As Warren Berger showed in A More Beautiful Question, the humble question can be a powerful tool. By asking questions, we can analyze, learn, and move forward in the face of uncertainty. When confronted with almost any demanding situation, the act of questioning can help guide us to smart decisions. But the questions must be the right ones; the ones that cut to the heart of complexity, or that enable us to see an old problem in a fresh way.
The Book of Beautiful Questions contains over 200 such questions addressing everyday dilemmas of all types: getting out of a career rut, generating fresh ideas, overcoming a fear of failure, checking your own biases, and many more. The book is about asking the right questions, at the right time, in order to make the best choices when it truly counts. Each beautiful question is thoughtful, provocative, and actionable, meaning it can be applied immediately to bring about change. Along with each question, Berger offers insights gleaned from his own research, as well as guidance from leading thinkers and experts, including Adam Grant, Elizabeth Gilbert, Atul Gawande, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Book of Beautiful Questions provides essential questions to guide readers to their own answers where it matters most.
The book is available now, and here’s an excerpt to give you a taste of what you can expect!
How might a leader encourage others, throughout an organization (or a community or even a family) to inquire more?
As is often the case, it’s better to start by first considering “Why?” before “How?” Why would a leader want to encourage more questioning? Why open the lid and release a potential torrent of employee questions?
The most obvious answer is that many companies today need new ideas from as many sources as possible, in order to innovate. Questions asked by all sorts of people—a manager reviewing procedures and processes, a worker on the frontlines who detects inefficiencies—can lead to important changes and improvements. Socrates once said, “All of us are smarter than any of us.” Companies become smarter and more productive by tapping into the collective intelligence of the group.
A second, related reason to encourage widespread questioning is that companies are having to deal with rapid and constant change, and inquiry is a key, accessible tool for navigating change. People within those changing companies can better adapt and survive if they’re able to ask questions and learn on the job.
Moreover, good leaders want their followers to feel content and fulfilled. (If nothing else, it lowers the employee-turnover rate.) One of the ways people feel fulfilled in their work is by learning. In fact, research suggests many people are apt to leave their jobs if and when they stop learning. If you want people within an organization to keep learning, you must give them the freedom to explore, wonder, and inquire.
So that’s the “why”—and it’s compelling, particularly for organizations that place a premium on innovation, want to encourage learning, and have a tolerance for independent thinking and internal debate.
That tolerance is important. Having a curious, engaged, and inquisitive workforce presents challenges. One question I sometimes ask leaders when discussing this is: If people start asking more questions at your company, what will you do with those questions? (Because questions shouldn’t be ignored; that just upsets the questioner.) Another point that comes up is, What if you don’t like the questions your employees are asking?
If leaders are flummoxed by those two points, it indicates they haven’t thought through the ramifications of encouraging a questioning culture. Here’s another, more common warning sign: Often, top executives say to their employees, “Don’t bring me questions; bring me answers.” (A similar version of that statement is, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.”) If you’re a leader and this sounds like something you have said or would say, consider what that statement means.
You’re saying, in effect, you’d like someone to bring you solutions and innovations—but you’re not interested in the messy process that produces those results. That’s not the way innovation works. To encourage innovation, you must embrace questions and experiments as potential opportunities to improve or innovate. As for the person who identifies a problem and raises a question about it—that person has, at that point, already contributed something valuable. In a positive questioning culture, an employee is not responsible for answering the question or solving the problem. If that individual happens to know the answer, that’s great—but depending on the scope of the problem, it may require a team effort to solve it.
To boil this down to a question, leaders weighing whether they truly desire a culture of inquiry may want to ask themselves: Am I ready to announce “Bring us the problems you’ve noticed?” Because in a questioning culture, people will do just that.
In terms of how to foster a culture of inquiry, there are different ways to approach the challenge but one thing seems clear: It must start at the top. Research on curiosity shows that it tends to flourish in an environment where questioning and problem solving is modeled and encouraged—whether by a teacher in a classroom, a parent in a home, or a top executive at a company.
“Leaders must be role models for good thinking,” says Ed Hess of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. They can do that, Hess says, by being very open about what they’re curious about, how they’re learning and solving problems. “They should be thinking out loud, in front of everyone.”
The good news is that many leaders are curious people by nature, as the journalist Adam Bryant observed, based on his hundreds of “Corner Office” profiles appearing over a decade in the New York Times. In looking for common characteristics among the many chief executives he interviewed, Bryant found “they share a habit of mind best described as ‘applied curiosity.’ They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They’re curious about people and their back stories.”
To begin building a culture of inquiry, a curious, questioning leader should exhibit those tendencies at every opportunity. For example, start meetings “by asking open-ended questions,” says Berkeley business professor Morten Hansen. He points out that too many leaders start meetings by stating opinions—which then causes “the rest of the room to fall in behind you.”
Rather than expecting people to fall in line, a questioning leader encourages disagreement. Pedro Pizarro, chief executive of the Edison International utility holding company, even goes so far as to ask other senior leaders at his company to disagree with him in open settings “so people see that somebody whom I value can debate with me.”
Modeling the behavior of questioning is an important start, but it’s only a first step. Doug Conant advises that with any effort to bring about change in an organization’s culture, there are three stages: You start by figuring out the culture you want, then you declare it, and then you create practices to support it. The “declaring” part is easy—too many leaders do that without backing up the declaration.
To adjust Conant’s formula slightly, leaders might want to start by asking themselves a two-part question: What is the culture I want, and what actions and conditions are likely to produce such a culture?
Excerpted from The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead.
Copyright © Warren Berger, 2018.
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. His writing and research appears regularly in Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.