I’d like you to think back to when you were 5 years old. When we asked on average 65 questions per day, most of them starting with “why.” The average 8 year-year-old asks 41 questions per day and by the time we are 44 years old we only asks six questions per day; most of them starting with “when,” “where,” or “how much.” The number of questions we ask per day doesn’t increase until retirement. Now why retirement?
Because that’s when we start asking, “Where are my keys?” and “Why did I walk into this room?” It could be said “We entered school as question marks and we graduated as periods.” How depressing…
Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, said, “The answer to any problem preexists. We need to ask the right question to reveal the right answer.” What I take away from Dr. Salk’s comments are that we don’t find, create, or invent creative solutions—we reveal them by asking great questions.
So here’s a suggestion: Have you ever played the game Twenty Questions? What if you asked your team to come up with twenty questions about your challenge before you tried to solve it? I guarantee you’ll come up with some creative insights.
Asking great questions is a three-step process. You start with what and then why questions before you ever ask how questions. My favorite first question to ask is:
- What is the result we want to see, feel and hear? And I’m specific about the vision for the future. Then I ask:
- Why do we want to achieve this result? And I’m passionate about the reasons to achieve this desired result. Finally I ask:
- How are we going to achieve this result? And I’m bold about the potential solutions.
The order to these questions is very important. If you start off asking the “how” questions before thoroughly defining your challenge with the “what” and “why” questions, you’d just come up with solutions in regard to an ill-defined problem. Not the best flow for problem solving.
Well now it’s time to give you some homework to increase your question-asking quotient. So tonight instead of asking your kids, “What did you learn today in school?” which gets you the typical “nothing” response… ask them, “What questions did you ask today?” Then encourage your kids to ask you, “What questions did you ask today at work?” Enjoy the new family conversation.
If you are a student, challenge your friends by asking who raised the best question in class today? And, of course, share your questions on social media.
You started school as a question mark asking why. My hope is that you regain that question mark status by remembering to ask great questions every day. Consider how your life might change if you retired as a question mark instead of as a period. Then you might spend your golden years asking, “What great book should I read today? and Why?” rather than “Where are my car keys?”
Chic Thompson is author of What a Great Idea! and Yes, but… He is a Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Founding Fellow at OpenGrounds at UVA and adjunct faculty at The Brookings Institution. Harvard Business School wrote a case on his speaking career entitled, What a Great Idea! For more information, go to www.whatagreatidea.com