A More Beautiful Question – The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.
Warren Berger’s 2014 book, A More Beautiful Question, explores “the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas”. Berger, a journalist, distills his learnings on the topic from hundreds of interviews with the world’s leading thinkers, creatives, and innovators across a variety of domains. The book is peppered with fascinating examples of how questions have propelled innovations in everything from prosthetic limbs to instant photographic film.
While the selected anecdotes make for an entertaining read, the book also delivers a provocative message for today’s business leaders. Berger makes the case that while effective questioning is a powerful force for progress – and increasingly important given prevailing market trends – most companies struggle with the concept. He discusses the reasons why companies find it difficult to cultivate a culture of inquiry and explore possible solutions. This article looks at these ideas in greater depth, and also considers how recent advances in collaboration software supports more productive organizational inquiry and decision making.
Always the beautiful answer. Who asks a more beautiful question
Questioning as a powerful force for change
By far the strongest theme in the book is the power of great questions to drive change, and Berger does an excellent job of tracing many historical innovations back to the questions that sparked them. But what does a great, or better yet, “beautiful” question look like? And what is its purpose? According to Berger, 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”.
That balance between ambition and actionability is a fine one, and finding it is more art than science. This is likely why Berger’s focus is on providing examples that offer inspiration for crafting great questions rather than giving formulaic guidance on how to do so. It’s clear that there is no single path for crafting that beautiful question – while some seem to strike in a flash of inspiration, others result from persistent iteration.
The difficulty of creating a culture of inquiry in business settings
Despite the power of questions to drive progress, Berger says that question asking capabilities are both underdeveloped and underappreciated in corporate settings; they also tend to get worse over time. As he puts it: “when it comes to questioning, companies are like people: They start out doing it, then gradually do it less and less. A hierarchy forms, a methodology is established, and rules are set; after that, what is there to question?”
Berger posits several additional reasons for an absence of inquiry. One is that people don’t want to continually defend proven methods and having to explain and rationalize them can be frustrating. Another is that questioning may be seen as slowing progress, and while “rapid change makes it necessary for businesses to question more, it also causes businesspeople to feel as if they don’t have time to question what they’re doing”.
A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble’s former CEO, offers an additional idea in his book Playing to Win that may also serve as an explanation. He notes that:
People’s default mode of communication tends to be advocacy— argumentation in favor or their own conclusions and theories, statements about the truth of their own point of view… The kind of dialogue we wanted to foster [at P&G] is called assertive inquiry … This approach blends the explicit expression of your own thinking (advocacy) with a sincere exploration of the thinking of others (inquiry).
Effective questioning is more important than ever … and using MENT can help
Despite its apparent benefits, given the difficulty of fostering a culture of inquiry, one could understand if many business leaders decided it was not worth the effort. However, the imperative to adopt a culture of inquiry is becoming increasingly critical; for many businesses, it is a strategic necessity. There are two prevailing forces that are creating an urgent need for businesses to improve their question crafting and subsequent decision-making capabilities. MENT is a powerful tool for responding to and managing both of them.
The first is the need to respond to a highly dynamic business environment and innovate. As Berger puts it: “for any company that needs to innovate or adapt to shifting market conditions, new competition, and other disruptive forces, a questioning culture is critical because it can help ensure that creativity and fresh, adaptive thinking flows throughout the organization”.
MENT will help companies develop this questioning culture. For starters, all MENT discussions begin with a question. If you’ve been following, that is a small victory in and of itself! In addition, MENT also allows for iterative refinement of the question itself by giving team members the ability to ask for clarity on one another’s opinions or suggestions. This, in turn, promotes a productive balance of advocacy and inquiry that can propel a discussion forward and drive teams towards a decision.
Using MENT also solves many of the pitfalls businesses typically face in fostering a culture of curiosity. Firstly, while open-ended questioning can have the effect of slowing progress, MENT’s use of focused, time-boxed inquiry would serve to accelerate progress. Another hazard of an inquiry-driven culture is the potential frustration of having to repeatedly defend proven approaches. Again, MENT solves this challenge by design. MENT creates a record of key decisions that makes the rationale transparent and available to all relevant team members. Lastly, MENT solves for potential cynicism around the development of an inquiry-driven culture. Leaders can actively and openly demonstrate their commitment to fostering such a culture by both posing consequential business questions in MENT, and contributing to debates started by others. Most of all, while MENT discussions start with a question, using its proprietary algorithms, it intelligently leads teams towards the best possible answer – and action – given the data available.
The second force that makes mastering the iterative questioning / decision-making process so critical is the growing complexity of the business environment. To paraphrase the perspective of Deborah Ancona, the director of the MIT Leadership Center:
“In the midst of such complexity, leaders need extraordinary ‘sensemaking’ capabilities: [i.e.] ‘the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment.’ To do this leaders must be able to get beyond their own assumptions, take in vast amounts of new information, and figure out how to apply all of that to their business…”
MENT is designed for exactly this kind of sensemaking. Firstly, MENT organizes responses to questions in a way that allows for a structured, asynchronous discussion which already provides huge benefits over synchronous chat or email-based formats. However, its real power lies in the proprietary algorithms that help make sense of a potentially vast set of inputs and opinions. MENT analyzes differing views and scores their credibility creating an environment where the most meritocratic answers stand out above the democratic din.
So, if you are interested in fostering a culture of inquiry and finding the best possible answers to an ever more “beautiful” set of questions, start your next business discussion on MENT. You will find that driving progress on critical questions has never been easier.
Barry Sherman – https://www.linkedin.com/in/barry-sherman-b902547