Ask questions: The Single Most Important Habit for Innovative Thinkers

Questions are the best way to gain deeper insights and develop more innovative solutions. So why do so few people utilize them, asks Paul Sloane?

Children learn by asking questions. Students learn by asking questions. New recruits learn by asking questions. Innovators understand client needs by asking questions. It is the simplest and most effective way of learning. People who think that they know it all no longer ask questions – why should they? Brilliant thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” He knows that if you keep asking questions you can keep finding better answers.

When Greg Dyke became Director-General of the BBC in 2000 he went to every major location and assembled the staff. They came expecting a long presentation. He simply sat down with them and asked a question, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?” Then he listened. He followed this with another question, “What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?” He knew that at that early stage he could learn more from his employees than they could from him. The workers at the BBC had many wonderful ideas that they were keen to share. The fact that the new boss took time to question and then listen earned him enormous respect.

Columbo solves his mysteries by asking many questions; as do all the great detectives – in real life as well as fiction. All the great inventors and scientists asked questions. Isaac Newton asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and, “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked, “Why do the Galapagos islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked, “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of fundamental questions they were able to start the process that lead to their tremendous breakthroughs.

The great philosophers spend their whole lives asking deep questions about the meaning of life, morality, truth and so on. We do not have to be quite so contemplative but we should nonetheless ask the deep questions about the situations we face. It is the best way to get the information we need to make informed decisions and for sales people it is the single most important skill they need to succeed.

Why don’t we ask questions?

If it is obvious that asking questions is such a powerful way of learning why do we stop asking questions? For some people the reason is that they are lazy. They assume they know all the main things they need to know and they do not bother to ask more. They cling to their beliefs and remain certain in their assumptions – yet they often end up looking foolish.

Other people are afraid that by asking questions they will look weak, ignorant or unsure. They like to give the impression that they are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. They fear that asking questions might introduce uncertainty or show them in a poor light. In fact asking questions is a sign of strength and intelligence – not a sign of weakness or uncertainty. Great leaders constantly ask questions and are well aware that they do not have all the answers.

Intelligent questions stimulate, provoke, inform and inspire.

Finally some people are in such a hurry to get with things that they do not stop to ask questions because it might slow them down. They risk rushing headlong into the wrong actions.

With prospect, with clients, at school, at home, in business, with our friends, family, colleagues or managers we can check assumptions and gain a better appreciation of the issues by first asking questions. Start with very basic, broad questions then move to more specific areas to clarify your understanding. Open questions are excellent – they give the other person or people chance to give broad answers and they open up matters. Examples of open questions are:

  • What business are we really in, what is our added value?
  • Why do you think this has happened?
  • What are all the things that might have caused this problem?
  • How can we reduce customer complaints?
  • Why do you think he feels that way?
  • What other possibilities should we consider?

As we listen carefully to the answers we formulate further questions. When someone gives an answer we can often ask, “Why?” The temptation is to plunge in with our opinions, responses, conclusions or proposals. The better approach is keep asking questions to deepen our comprehension of the issues before making up our mind. Once we have mapped out the main points we can use closed questions to get specific information. Closed questions give the respondent a limited choice of responses – often just yes or no. Examples of closed questions are:

  • When did this happen?
  • Was he angry?
  • Where is the shipment right now?
  • Did you authorise the payment?
  • Would you like to go to the cinema with me on Saturday evening?

By giving the other person a limited choice of responses we get specific information and deliberately move the conversation forward in a particular direction.

Asking many questions is very effective but it can make you appear to be inquisitorial and intrusive. So it is important to ask questions in a friendly and unthreatening way. Do not ask accusing questions. “What do you think happened?” will probably get a better response than, “Are you responsible for this disaster?” Try to pose each question in an way and ensure that your body language is relaxed and amicable. Do not jab your finger or lean forward as you as put your requests.

Try to practice asking more questions in your everyday conversations. Instead of telling someone something, ask them a question. Intelligent questions stimulate, provoke, inform and inspire. Questions help us to teach as well as to learn.

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

  • koiijjj

    hi

  • Pingback: Day 17 – Q: Question – Culture of Asking | my kmspace

  • randeep singh

    i really think that phrasing and timing of question should be really good to get a precise answer

  • mimmi

    why no help

  • 晶晶

    呵呵

  • araf

    Jim and Dan would like to start an on-line technology business. They decide it would be great to go to a Technology Trade Fair in Singapore to enjoy a holiday and to source merchandise for their new business. They research accommodation options and flight deals online. Jim sees an advertisement for a new accommodation booking service “Bookit Holidays” on television, advertising amazing opening specials and encouraging people to check out their website. Jim looks on the internet and finds “Bookit Holidays” advertising one week’s accommodation for two people, in a five star luxury hotel in Singapore for only $300. Realising that this was an exceptionally good deal, but not surprised because he knew that “Bookit Holidays” were running a number of good opening specials, he clicked on the special and made a booking.

    That evening Jim received an email from “Bookit Holidays” explaining that there had been a mistake and the website should have said $3000. “Bookit Holidays” explained that this was still a good price because normally a week’s accommodation in a five-star hotel would have cost $4000.

    Jim replied by email immediately, telling “Bookit Holidays” that he was very frustrated, as it had taken him several phone calls to his mate Dan to decide if they’d make the booking. He said that if he’d had known it would cost $3000, he would never have made the booking. Jim then turned off his computer and went out for a jog to calm down.

    “Bookit Holidays” replied to Jim’s email Tuesday morning. They apologised for the confusion and said that they wanted to keep their customers happy so Jim could have the accommodation package for $1500, but that the deal was for a limited time and Jim would need to notify them by the close of business that day to confirm he wanted to proceed with the booking.

    Jim called Dan immediately to check what Dan wanted to do, and they agreed that they’d book the accommodation at the discounted rate of $1500. Jim emailed “Bookit Holidays” Tuesday afternoon saying he’d like to make the booking for $1500. “Bookit Holidays” didn’t receive Jim’s email until Friday morning. “Bookit Holidays” emailed Jim immediately upon receipt of the email stating that regretfully, the accommodation had been booked by another customer on Wednesday and the deal had lapsed. • Advise Jim as to his legal position. Does a contract exist? • Include references to any case law and the relevant sections of any applicable legislation. •

  • http://girlmeetsstrong.tumblr.com/ Girl Meets Strong

    This is so brilliant! I love the quote from Eric at Google.

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