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A More Beautiful Question

The Power of Inquiry to Spark

Breakthrough Ideas
Warren Berger
Bloomsbury USA © 2014
272 pages

Rating Take-Aways

8 Applicability • Asking lots of questions stimulates out-of-the-box thinking.
8 Innovation • Too many companies favor “knowing and doing” over questioning.
8 Style
• Children ask fewer and fewer questions as they progress through school.
• Being willing to ask “big, meaningful, beautiful questions” is a prerequisite to moving
  away from the familiar in order to “embrace the new.”
Focus • The first step in solving a problem is to ask why a situation is the way it is.
Leadership & Management • Follow up with what-if questions that consider any possible solution, no matter how
Strategy outlandish. Then ask how you can turn a what-if scenario into a reality.
Sales & Marketing
• Most innovations combine existing ideas in a new way.
Human Resources • Many freewheeling thoughts arise when you are relaxed.
IT, Production & Logistics
• In a time of rapid change, questions may be more valuable than answers.
Career & Self-Development
Small Business • Fostering a “culture of inquiry” must start with a company’s leadership.
Economics & Politics
Global Business
Concepts & Trends

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What You Will Learn
In this summary, you will learn:r1) How questioning stimulates creativity, 2) Why businesses and schools discourage
inquiry, 3) Why the most effective questioning follows a “Why – What If – How” model, and 4) How to use “beautiful
questions” to your advantage.
Smartphones, e-books and online shopping exist because someone asked, “Why not?” Journalist Warren Berger
asserts that asking simple questions is crucial to creative problem solving. In this absorbing exploration, Berger
details how innovators such as Polaroid’s Edwin Land and Netflix’s Eric Hastings parlayed “why” questions into
huge businesses. Inquiry is far too rare in business, says Berger, because after the start-up phase, companies tend
to perceive questions as threats to the established order. Berger outlines techniques that organizations can use to
stimulate a spirit of inquiry, but this is not primarily a how-to manual. Instead, Berger seeks to inspire. Through
dozens of stories and the insights of experts, he shows how you can use the right questions to see things that others
miss and to expand the sphere of what’s possible. His concepts should be of particular interest to those in creative
fields like design or advertising. getAbstract also recommends Berger’s vision of raising and answering “beautiful
questions” to entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and anyone doing business in this era of rapid change.

It’s Not What You Already Know...
When you face a problem, you look for a solution. That seems reasonable enough, but is
solution-seeking always the best strategy? You generally devise solutions by drawing on
getabstract information you already know or by trying fixes that worked in the past. But what if you
“One good
question...can generate face a new kind of problem that requires a new kind of solution – one that no one has tried
whole new fields of before you?
inquiry and can prompt
changes in entrenched
thinking. Answers, on You won’t find a breakthrough idea by reviewing what you already know. Instead,
the other hand, often
end the process.”
follow the example of such innovators as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs: Don’t look for
getabstract answers; look for “beautiful questions” instead. The game-changing products, services
and entertainment you enjoy today – including online shopping and Pixar movies – have
their roots in questions. As New York Times technology reporter David Pogue asserts, such
imaginative leaps occur “when someone looks at the way things have always been done
and asks why.”
“Increasingly, Three Kinds of Queries
businesses must tackle Interviews with more than 100 creative thinkers in science, business, technology and
more sophisticated
open questions entertainment suggest that effective questioners usually pose three kinds of queries:
(Why? What if?
How?) to thrive in
an environment that 1. “Why questions” – When amputee Van Phillips struggled with the clumsy prosthetics
demands a clearer of the 1970s, he asked, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent
sense of purpose, a
vision for the future
foot?” Why questions inspired innovations such as the Polaroid camera and Netflix. The
and an appetite for door to fresh solutions opens when you refuse to accept the existing reality.
change.” 2. “What-if questions” – Phillips dreamed up possible solutions to his why question by
asking what-if questions. What if a foot could be like a diving board? What if a prosthetic
foot could be like a cheetah’s paw? What-if questions enable you to browse through

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possibilities without regard to practicality. They help you conjure fresh approaches to
established problems. They free you from what you think you know.
3. “How questions” – Phillips asked how he could incorporate the spring force of a diving
board or the power of a cheetah’s paw into a prosthetic foot. Only after going through
getabstract how questioning did he hit on the concept of a curved wooden blade that he called the
“Many companies –
whether consciously or Flex-Foot.
not – have established
cultures that tend to
discourage inquiry.” Why Don’t Adults Question More?
getabstract Human beings are natural-born questioners. Almost every kid asks, “Why is the sky blue?”
That’s only one of the 40,000 questions that the typical child asks between the ages of two
and five. After that age, the number of questions that children ask drops off dramatically
as they grow older.

One culprit is school, which emphasizes facts and rewards students who have the “right
answers.” “Schools in many industrialized nations were not, for the most part, designed
getabstract to produce innovative thinkers or questioners – their primary purpose was to produce
“A beautiful question workers.” As a result, schools prioritize obedience and memorizing core facts, both desired
is an ambitious yet
actionable question traits in a laborer.
that can begin to shift
the way we perceive or
think about something Another factor concerns how you allocate your mental resources. You can’t question
– and that might serve everything in your daily life and still function efficiently. You have to perform many tasks
as a catalyst to bring
about change.”
automatically, ignoring distractions and inconsistencies so you can reserve your mental
getabstract energy for the things you choose to focus on. But in today’s environment of rapid change,
you can safely ignore fewer things. As your environment becomes more unpredictable, you
need to ask more questions in order to adapt successfully.

Corporate cultures generally repress questioning. The founders of many major companies
modeled their enterprises on the military, with layers of responsibility and status, and with
little scope for asking questions about standard practices and processes. This system tends to
“Innovative sanction expertise instead of curiosity. Industrial economies reward expressing confidence
questioners, when faced and acting as if you have all the answers. As consultant Eric Ries points out, “If you did
with situations that
are less than ideal,
your homework, you were supposed to know.”
inquire as to why, trying
to figure out what’s In times of change, when you constantly confront the unknown, you must rely on creativity
getabstract more than knowledge. Questioning stimulates your creativity.

The Naive Question: Why?

The first step in innovation is to forget what you know, or at least clear it from your
conscious mind. Steve Jobs, for instance, adopted the Zen Buddhist concept of “beginner’s
mind,” the ability to see a situation as if for the first time. Heed Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s
advice, who wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s
there are few.” You can cultivate this frame of mind by asking naive questions, including
getabstract a child’s favorite: “Why?”
“For some reason,
questioning isn’t taught
in most schools – nor A child’s why led to the development of the Polaroid camera. On a family vacation in the
is it rewarded (only
memorized answers 1940s, Edwin Land’s three-year-old daughter asked why she couldn’t immediately see the
are).” photograph her father had just taken. Land knew that producing an instant photograph was
impossible: You had to develop film in a darkroom. But instead of relying on what he knew,
he continued to think about her question. Four years later, his first black-and-white instant
camera hit the market.

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Why is powerful because it gives you a new perspective. Why lets you “step back” from
your assumptions and expertise and see things freshly, with a beginner’s mind.

getabstract The Dreamer’s Question: What If?

“One of the many Your why opens a new field of thought, often unveiling a need. A second kind of question
interesting and
appealing things – What if? – will help you imagine ways to satisfy this need. Asking a what-if question
about questioning is lets you brainstorm a range of solutions, freeing your imagination from the constraints of
that it often has an
inverse relationship to practicality. Innovation requires “a time for wild, improbable ideas to surface and inspire.”
expertise.” Sometimes the most outlandish what-if question is the one that produces results. Tim
Westergren once asked a far-fetched question that juxtaposed concepts from biology and the
arts: “What if we could map the DNA of music?” This idea led to Pandora Internet Radio,
which recommends music to users based on an analysis of its “basic building blocks.”

In many cases, you don’t have to invent your what-if ideas out of whole cloth: Many
fresh ideas are recombinations of existing and often seemingly incompatible concepts.
Westergren’s combination of songs and genetics is an example of “remixing” ideas.
“The old educational Einstein, Jobs, Walt Disney and Star Wars director George Lucas were all master remixers.
model hasn’t evolved They borrowed existing ideas and combined them in creative, unexpected ways.
much – and for the most
part hasn’t adapted to
the modern economy’s If you don’t feel as creative as an Einstein or a Disney, embrace a few useful techniques to
need for more creative,
independent-thinking stimulate your recombining abilities. One tactic is to “think wrong.” Force your thinking
‘workers’.” out of its familiar tracks by purposely “coming up with ideas that seem to make no sense,
mixing and matching things that don’t normally go together.” Wrong thinking might lead
you to the question, “What if some company started selling socks that didn’t match?”
This provocative, nonsensical question led to the business plan of the now thriving sock
company, LittleMissMatched.

Or just go for a stroll. To unleash creative mixing, give your mind time to let the question
“incubate.” By “stepping away...you give your brain a chance to come up with the kinds
“Questions (the right of fresh insights and what-if possibilities that can lead to breakthroughs.” According to
ones, anyway) are brain researcher Chen-Bo Zhong, the mind does this best in a “state of inattention”: Pulling
good at generating
momentum, which is
the conscious mind away from the problem at hand gives your unconscious a chance to
why change-makers go to work. Gently distracting the conscious mind is easy enough. Go to a museum, take
so often use them as a a walk, daydream or even sleep. When the brain is relaxed, it “turns inward” and ignores
starting point.”
getabstract distractions, which generates more brain “activity in the right hemisphere,” which is the
more creative part of the brain. A visit to a museum can be a perfect way to step back: It
provides a break from conscious attention on your problem and offers a plethora of ideas
that will stimulate your imagination and generate fresh conceptual fodder for thinking of
innovative connections.

The Realist’s Question: How?

The third stage of “actionable inquiry” is when you narrow down your what-if ideas and
“The problem with figure out how to make one of them into a workable product or process. During this “slow,
asking questions, for
some business leaders,
methodical” stage, test ideas, watch them fail and learn from the failures.
is that it exposes a lack
of expertise and, in Test your idea by building a prototype – any kind of working model – whether it’s a crude
theory, makes them
vulnerable.” mock-up built from simple materials or a graphic representation on a computer screen.
getabstract Don’t overplan the concepts you try. “Quickly test ideas to get feedback and see what works
and what doesn’t.” Phillips tested more than 200 Flex-Foot prototypes. Become inured to
any successive failures – each one unveils new pieces of information that take you that
much nearer to success.

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During the why and what-if stages, ignoring conventional wisdom often proves useful. Yet
during the how phase, other people’s expertise can be a rich resource. In the digital era,
reaching out to a diverse collection of people who have expertise, abilities and conceptual
brilliance is easier than ever. When you have a compelling question, people “almost can’t
resist advising or helping you” find some great answers.
“Positive questions,
focusing on strengths Fostering a “Culture of Inquiry”
and assets, tend to yield
more effective results Conventional businesses prize doing over questioning and expertise over uncertainty.
than negative questions Today, knowledge for its own sake is less valuable. As the speed of change accelerates,
focusing on problems or
deficits.” expertise has a shorter lifespan. Today’s answers are out of date tomorrow. In the age of
getabstract Google and Wikipedia, you needn’t memorize vast stores of knowledge – almost any fact
is a mouse click away.

Businesses can take several steps to foster a culture of inquiry:

• Start with the leadership – Leaders need to welcome the challenges of uncertainty.
The old role for leaders was to know; their new role is to make sense of change for
their employees. A chief executive officer who becomes a chief executive questioner
encourages everyone throughout the organization to ask probing questions. Employees
“For decades, [Toyota] are likely to come up with inquiries that wouldn’t occur to the top brass. The most
used the practice of effective leader doesn’t only offer answers. He or she uses Socratic-style debate and
asking why five times
in succession as a deeper questioning to spark intense creativity from staff members.
means of getting to the • “Reward questioning” – Organizations should stop punishing those who ask questions
root of a particular
manufacturing or saddling those who identify a problem with the responsibility of fixing it. Companies
problem.” need to devise ways to give employees the time to pursue meaningful lines of inquiry.
Google, for instance, has a “20% time” policy whereby employees can “devote a fifth of
their time to work on independent projects.”
• Restructure the company as a learning environment – Organizations need to create
an atmosphere that nurtures exploration. Some replace the traditional military model
with cultures relying on the metaphors of the university or the laboratory. Google, for
example, hosts guest lecturers and provides a platform for employees to teach in-house
classes on topics ranging from technology to parenting.
• Replace brainstorming with “question-storming” – Brainstorming sessions leverage
the power of collaboration, but be aware that pressure to come up with original ideas and
getabstract solutions can short-circuit creativity. Shift the focus toward generating questions about
“Asking why can be the a problem.
first step to bringing
about change in almost • Recruit questioners – To bring about a change in how your firm thinks, search for and
any context.” hire information seekers. Populate the company culture with daring new employees who
are “naturally inquisitive.” Job interviews traditionally assess a candidate’s talent for
answering questions. A more revealing method might be to test an interviewee’s ability
to ask questions as well. Require candidates to bring a handful of questions about your
business to the interview. Build on those inquiries by asking follow-up questions to the
interviewee’s questions.

About the Author
Journalist Warren Berger has written for Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and Wired. His book Glimmer
was one of BusinessWeek’s Best Innovation and Design Books of the Year.

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