We live in a time where information about nearly everything is just a computer click away. Knowledge is ubiquitous. And yet, we seem to be suffering a dearth of wisdom. A lack that shows up in our seeming inability to collaborate on the biggest challenges facing life on our planet.
Julio Olalla, founder of the Newfield Network, has said: “Knowledge is about answers; wisdom is a love affair with questions.”
What stops us from loving—and asking—more beautiful questions? Questions that are ambitious yet actionable, that shift the way we perceive or think about something and serve as a catalyst to bring about tangible results and change.
Warren Berger, in his provocative new book, A More Beautiful Question, distinguishes these questions in detail and shares some startling statistics from the research of Harvard child psychologist Paul Harris that may point us in the right direction.
Did you know that a child will ask 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five? And that by age 4, most of a child’s questions are in search of explanations, not just facts? Or that children immediately ask fewer questions upon entering pre-school and elementary school? By middle school, most kids stop asking questions altogether. Our education systems orient students toward learning solutions. We inhibit curiosity and encourage mimicry.
Berger also gives us another clue as to why we stop questioning. In a November, 2012 interview he conducted with Joshua Aronson, associate professor of applied psychology at New York University, Aronson declared “Fear is the enemy of curiosity.” When we don’t feel safe, we tend to play it safe. We avoid the risk of failure and any associated criticism or ridicule from peers or bosses.
Beautiful Questions @ Work
I remember the time I gave a speech to an audience of small business owners early in the 1990s on encouraging workplace collaboration and teamwork. A CEO stood up in the back of the crowded ballroom and shouted, “What about good old-fashioned fear as a management tool? I don’t pay my people to think. I pay them to do their jobs without questioning my orders.”
She couldn’t see what I saw, standing in the management paradigm she had been trained in—a paradigm well suited to an industrial era workplace that depended on compliance from employees to carry out standardized procedures designed to meet the predictable needs of customers.
Fear was designed into the twentieth-century workplace to enforce compliance. With new technologies and process improvements through reengineering, we were able to bring about radical improvements in efficiency and cost reduction. We learned to track compliance in real time, eliminate variances, and reduce errors to near zero. Just doing your job, as defined, made perfect sense in a system fine-tuned for prediction, control, and consistency.
That era is over.
We now live in a time of constant change and rampant uncertainty. CEOs around the globe, according to a recent IBM survey, stated that the top attributes they desire in employees are creativity, flexibility, and the abilities to “learn as you go” and to collaborate with others.
Why value these traits? Because CEOs regard them as essential to dealing with the complexity of today’s problems and producing the stream of innovations that will drive the bottom line. Companies that “stick to their knitting” (formerly a prescription for success) are now vulnerable. Just ask iconic companies such as Kodak what’s it like to miss the next frontier and be eclipsed by more nimble newcomers.
Create the Environment for More Beautiful Questions
Establish an “organizational mood” that makes it safe for employees to ask more “beautiful questions”. Curiosity is a key ingredient of that mood. A curiosity based in asking questions because “we don’t know” … and we are not afraid to admit it.
What stifles that kind of curiosity in our workplaces?
Playing it safe with conventional thinking. To get out of that box we need to be willing to ask questions and experiment in areas where we might not even have a hypothesis, much less a point of view. This requires moving our organization up the following scale on how we relate to questions:
“No more time for questions!”
“We allow relevant questions.”
“We encourage all questions … the more provocative, the better.”
“We teach, train and coach each other to ask more beautiful questions.”
Your ability to develop the question-asking capacity of your people starts with the quality of your own questions and the underlying mood you bring.
Exuberance and Curiosity
A mood of exuberance, rather than fear, encourages everyone to ask questions that peel away assumptions, invite people to take new vantage points on issues, and make visible connections that were previously overlooked.
Exuberance is grounded in curiosity and a love of questions. In a comfort with surprise and uncertainty. In a willingness to admit, “I don’t even know what I don’t know, but I am open to exploring that territory with a commitment to listen—and collaborate—with those who have very different views from my own.”
Here are five things you can do right away to produce more beautiful questions.
- Lead with questions yourself.
- Prioritize questions over answers. Ask your people to ask more questions before quickly jumping to solutions.
- Celebrate “naïve” and unconventional questions.
- Reward those who are not satisfied with pat answers or traditional solutions.
- Curb the natural impatience you may experience with those who ask “why”, especially when you feel pressure to move right into action.