The Power of Questions

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By Justin Jarvinen, Global Head of Ecosystems, Strategy & Ventures

Asking questions requires a maturity that, once achieved, is power.

From the Latin word Quaerere’ which means Ask’ or Seek’ intends to solve a philosophical or theological problem, later adopted as utterance meant to elicit an answer of discussion.’

There’s a great deal that’s been written about questions and the power they hold. The fact is, there’s a certain maturity required to ask questions that many folks might not achieve until much later in life, if ever. Asking questions, as it turns out, is not that easy.

I wasn’t a very good question-asker….

Until I was somewhere into my late twenties or even thirties, I rarely asked good, probing questions. And it wasn’t necessarily because I knew the answer: I can assure you, I didn’t. But I felt like people expected me to know certain things. And the people I was dealing with were typically older, perhaps more successful, and so, on rare occasion would I reveal that I didn’t currently have the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I was asking all kinds of questions, in my head, but that only limited my understanding of something to my own ability to probe. By not asking questions, I limited the universe of information I might otherwise have at my disposal — information I needed to make the most informed decisions. This place is called ignorance. (If you’re interested in reading more on ignorance, here’s a quickie I wrote about a year ago.)

Years later I realized my superpower wasn’t knowing the answer: it was processing lots of information and finding a solution. It’s being curious, formulating good sets of questions, following paths, challenging assumptions, visualizing outcomes, and asking more good questions. I eventually matured in my understanding of the inherent power of questions and embraced them much like an 8-year-old might.

At Salt Flats, we’ve been testing our own model for innovation called Proximate Discovery that essentially maps how ideas connect to each other via questions we ask, and in turn, deepen our understanding of things and expand the edges of our creative canvas. With this map, you can visualize how ideas relate to one another while watching them pulse out from the core problem to be solved in clear trains of logic. Using this tool, we can score ideas, assess perceived and real risk, and even spot opportunities to drill in and run the process on a single idea or feature. You can zoom out or zoom in’ as some of my colleagues like to say. Proximate Discovery is a reliable, foundational model that’s based on how humans actually think — enabled by questions.

Today, it might be more difficult to discern between someone with experience, or someone who’s well read and generally intelligent — and a great thinker.

This model doesn’t exist without questions. Innovation doesn’t happen without questions. Questions are power. Questions are the bridge from one idea to another; they’re neurotransmitters. Leonardo Da Vinci famously asked questions and is regarded as one of history’s great thinkers. Today, it’s easy to acquire knowledge given the troves of information we each consume each day: it’s quite literally everywhere. You can almost become knowledgeable on just about any topic by accident!

But back when Da Vinci was challenging the world around him, questions were what led to breakthroughs. Philosophers were regarded as leaders in society. And scientists rarely discovered what they set out to find — Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity being a great example. Today, it might be more difficult to discern between someone with experience, or someone who’s well read and generally intelligent — and a great thinker.

If humans were computers, you’d have storage capacity and processing power. Eventually, storage went to the cloud.

You see, great thinkers aren’t afraid to ask questions. They embrace them as a means to get the information they currently don’t have. And so, at some point in my early or mid-thirties, I started embracing questions — openly asking them so I had more information to process. For any of us in innovation, disruption, transformation, or any other business that depends on generating insights or differentiated thinking such as in certain types of consulting and, certainly, in the agency world, asking questions is the only way to get to the big ideas. Advice: Be skeptical of the person in the room who always has the answers. Answers are almost always just the limit of what that person knows.

Facts are more often than not, temporary.

Constantin Stanislavski, a famous acting coach created a question asking methodology that he asked each of his students to use, called the Magic If”. Simply put, the Magic If” is a technique where you introduce a random what if” scenario to the character you’re portraying. For example, you’re a struggling writer forced to take a part-time job to cover the bills. Great, an actor can get into the role and process how this character deals with the complexity of knowing he’s the next great writer while also having to serve everyday people. Ah, the agony! But….. what if” something had happened to him? What if he had encountered an alien as a child and that alien explained to him that anything written down would become part of his own destiny? And what if something he had written actually happened to him — like, his wife had developed an illness which caused him to need regular work. He’d stop writing, despite the fact he knew he was good! Asking questions can change future’s course. What might this character have accomplished after answering these questions? Where would the story take us?

Your brain naturally seeks questions because its job is to make decisions…

Questions can quite literally change the course of anything. If you missed my presentation on neuroeconomics, someone got a pretty decent live stream of it here. Part of my discussion focused on the questions the brain asks itself during the decision making process. Should I do this? What will I get in return? Is it safe? Is it worth my while? In game theory, one of the areas of study is called Intertemporal Choice. In IC, we study how a decision today impacts potential choices in the future. Another interesting — and fun — question game that relates to IC is the 10÷10÷10 game. In this game, you ask yourself to think about questions on three different time frames: 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now. Ask yourself, how will this decision impact me on those time frames? Or how might I change my decision today based on my understanding of it at some point in the future?

Questions are fundamental to decision making!

On January 16, we’ll be hosting a live session on The Power of Questions. In this interactive workshop, we’ll explore a variety of techniques and have fun. Space is limited, so register today.

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