A More Beautiful Question

Summary Written by Bryann Alexandros
"We're all hungry today for better answers. But first we must learn to ask the right questions."

- A More Beautiful Question, page 9

The Big Idea

So, What is a Beautiful Question?

"A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change."- A More Beautiful Question, page 8

Beautiful questions aren’t necessarily the deeply philosophical ones like “Is there life after death?” but the actionable ones that today’s creative people, entrepreneurs, and pioneering companies were bold enough to pursue and engage:

* “Could computers be used to link information rather than simply compute numbers?” (Led to the modern World Wide Web.)
* “What if dots and dashes could sort the world?” (Led to the modern “Barcode”.)
* “What if a car windshield could blink?” (Mary Anderson and the modern windshield wiper.)
* “Should mission statements be mission questions?”
* “Why must we question the question”?

The starting point of all innovation begins with the beautiful question. Bold and continuous inquiry is an art and a skill – a part of the creative process – that must be relearned and embraced again.

Insight #1

Why Does Everything Begin With Why?

"Often the worst thing you can do with a difficult question is to try to answer it too quickly."- A More Beautiful Question, page 34

Many of the psychologists and scientists in the book believed that children were ideal scientists and anthropologists. One even compared children to being humanity’s “dedicated R&D division.” Kids are fearless in their experiments and inquiries.

But then grade school, federal mandates, and overambitious parenting happened.

Asking Why actually kicks off the first stage of innovative questioning. It can be applied to anything:

* Why does a particular situation exist?
* Why has no one addressed this need or solved this problem before?
* Why does it present a problem or create a need or opportunity, and for whom?

Berger also noted a common thread in the way master questioners proceeded with inquiry, many which took the format of Why/What if/How.

First, master questioners begin with Why when they’ve confronted a less than ideal situation. Second, new possibilities are imagined in the form of What If. Finally, one of those possibilities is chosen and implemented by asking How.

This Why/What If/How sequence of questioning is a simplified framework, but it correlates with past theories of creativity. Is this exact pattern a rule? Nope! This just shows that even master questioners and problem solvers had some “process” to bring order to chaos so that next steps could be taken.

We know that even in the 21st century, many business leaders stop their companies from asking the obvious. Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School says asking “Why” can be seen as insubordinate and “inefficient” because too many leaders are anxious for straight action.

Asking Why is how you uncover problems and opportunities in the first place.

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Insight #2

The Power of "How Might We?"

"When people within companies try to innovate, they often talk about the challenges they’re facing by using language that can inhibit creativity instead of encouraging it..."- A More Beautiful Question, page 155

Renowned design firm IDEO might’ve popularized “How Might We,” which is a core statement starter for encouraging collaboration, but Berger notes that they weren’t the first ones to use it.

Its origins date back fifty years ago to Sidney Parnes of the legendary yet obscure Creative Problem Solving Institute in Buffalo, New York. Dr. Min Basadur – founder of Basadur Applied Creativity and previously creative manager for Procter & Gamble (P&G) – had already adapted it during the 1970s to help P&G come up with a successful competitive brand against Colgate’s Irish Springs. Basadur got his team from “How can we make a better green-stripe bar?” to “Why are we trying so hard to make a better green-stripe bar” to, eventually, the right question: “How might we make a more refreshing soap of our own?” This resulted in P&G’s successful blue and white-striped bar soap named Coast.

Companies even today can still spin their wheels asking the wrong questions. Basadur says “might” surpasses “can” or “should.” Might allows us to diverge freely and make new connections. When we default to “can” or “should,” judgment, permission-seeking, and limitations are implied and we constrict everyone’s ability to imagine.

There were many great lessons here: Simplified language matters, creativity and problem solving is still a process, and even the boldest questions can continue throughout our entire lives:

Read the book

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Warren Berger

I’m a longtime journalist (The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Reader’s Digest) and book author who has written about a variety of subjects over the years–creativity, innovation, and questioning being particular favorites.

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