When I was 27, I moved to Warsaw, Poland to work in the nascent media industry that was developing there. I had experience working in media in New York, so I was excited to share what I’d learned and was confident that my knowledge and expertise would be well received.
It wasn’t. Whenever I began to explain how a media business was supposed to work, people would ask me, “why?” That forced me to think about it and, when I did, I began to realize that many of the principles I had taken for granted were merely conventions. Things didn’t need to work that way and could be done differently.
That’s when I first learned the power of a question. As Warren Berger explains in A More Beautiful Question, while answers tend to close a discussion, questions help us open new doors and can lead to genuine breakthroughs. Yet not all questions are equal. Asking good questions is a skill that takes practice and effort to learn to do well. Here’s where to start.
When we are young, we ask lots of “why?” questions. Why is the sky blue? Why can’t we fly like birds? Why do I have to go to bed at a certain time? It is through asking why that we learn basic things about the world. Yet as we get older we tend to think we know things and stop questioning fundamental assumptions.
That’s where I was when I first arrived in Poland. I had gone through extensive training and knew things. I was proud of the knowledge that I had gained and didn’t question whether those things were necessarily true. My new Polish colleagues, on the other hand, were emerging from 50 years of communism and so were unencumbered with that illusion of knowledge.
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I spoke to dozens of world class innovators and I was amazed how often breakthroughs started with a “Why?” question. For example, Jim Allison, a prominent immunologist who had lost family members to cancer, asked himself why our immune system doesn’t attack tumors.
“Why?” questions can be frustrating, because there are rarely easy answers to them and they almost always lead to more questions. There’s even a technique called the 5 Whys that is designed to uncover root problems. Nevertheless, if you want to get beyond fundamental assumptions, you need to start with asking “why?”
While asking “why?” can help alert us to new opportunities, asking “What if” can lead us into new directions and open new doors. Einstein was famous for these types of thought experiments. Asking “What if I would ride on a bolt of lightning?” led to his theory of special relativity and asking “What if I was riding on an elevator in space?” led to general relativity.
Often we can use “What if?” questions to propose answers to our “Why?” questions. For example, after Jim Allison asked himself why our immune system doesn’t attack tumors, he followed it up by asking, “what if our immune system actually does attack tumors, but shuts off too soon?”
That took him in a completely new direction. He began to experiment with regulating the immune response and achieved amazing results. Eventually, he would win the Nobel Prize for his role in establishing the new field of cancer immunotherapy. It all started because he was able to imagine new possibilities with a “What if?” question.
Another way we can use “What If? questions is to remove or add constraints. For example, we can ask ourselves, “What if we didn’t have to worry about costs?” or “What if we could only charge our customers half of what we’re charging now?” Asking “What if? Questions can often alert us to possibilities what we weren’t aware of.
Asking “Why?” and “What if? questions can open up new opportunities, eventually we need to answer the “How?” question. “How?” questions can be especially difficult because answering them often involves knowledge, resources and capabilities that we do not possess. That’s what makes “How?” questions fundamentally more collaborative.
For example, as a research executive at Eli Lilly, Alph Bingham became interested in why some chemistry problems never got solved. One observation he made was that when he was in graduate school, if there were 20 people in a class they would often come up with 20 different approaches to a problem, but in industry scientists generally worked alone.
Long an admirer of Linux, he was fascinated with the way thousands of volunteers were able to create and advance complex software that could compete with the best proprietary products. So he began to think “What if we could do something like Linux, but with a bounty?” He thought that if he got more people working on the “How?” question, he might be able to solve more problems.
The fruit of his efforts, called Innocentive went live in June 2001 with 21 problems, many of which the company had been working on for years. Although the bounties were small in the context of the pharmaceutical industry — $20,000 to $25,000 — by the end of the year a third of them were solved. It was an astounding success.
It soon became clear that more challenges on the site would attract more solvers, so they started recruiting other companies to the platform. When results improved, they even began inviting competitors to post challenges as well. Today, Innocentive has over 100,000 solvers that work out hundreds of problems so tough that even the smartest companies can’t crack them.
Building A Culture Of Inquiry
When I first arrived in Poland, I was prepared to give all the answers, because that’s what I was trained for. The media business in New York had been around for a long time and everything was supposedly worked out. Follow the model, I was told, and you’ll be successful. That’s why the questions my new colleagues posed took me by surprise.
Yet once I started asking questions myself, I began to see opportunities everywhere. As I travelled and worked in different countries, I found that everywhere I went, people ran nearly identical businesses in completely different ways and most were convinced that their way was the “right” way. Most saw little utility in questioning how things were done.
That’s why most people can’t innovate. In fact, while researching Mapping Innovation, I found that the best innovators were not the ones who were the smartest or even the ones who worked the hardest, but those who continually looked for new problems to solve. They were always asking new questions, that’s how they found new things
The truth is that to drive innovation, we need to build a culture of inquiry. We need to ask “why” things are done the way they are done, “what if” we took a different path and “how” things can be done differently. If you don’t explore, you won’t discover and if you don’t discover, you won’t invent. Once you stop inventing, you will be disrupted.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto