Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Why do we question? What if you question your own questions? How do we ask a beautiful question? Isn’t it amazing what questions can do? They send us in directions unknown, towards possibilities undiscovered. Journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger delves into these and more in his book A More Beautiful Question. Berger talks about questioning deeply, imaginatively and beautifully to create, innovate and transform. Using numerous examples the author shows that the most creative and successful innovators tend to be expert questioners.
Forty four questions divide up the five chapters – The Power of Inquiry; Why We Stop Questioning; The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning; Questioning in Business; Questioning for Life. Interspersed throughout are question sidebars that tell short snippets on breakthrough ideas and innovations. Even the index at the end is organized as questions!
Berger demonstrates the power of inquiry in the first chapter through the creative journey of Van Philip, who introduced flex-foot prosthetics to the world. Philip began with a question “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?” (p.11). Questioning enables people to think and act in the face of uncertainty. The author suggests that increasing complexity has led to the value of knowing (answers) declining, and that of discovery (questions) increasing.
“Why do kids ask so many questions?” (p.39) asks the author in chapter two. Between the ages of four and five, children seem to ask lots of questions. By middle school, it falls off a cliff. Berger covers the The Central Park East schools in New York where children keep the spirit of questioning alive. As adults, what if we can question more, like we did as preschoolers?
Next the Why –What If – How process of innovative questioning is elaborated. Land’s Polaroid camera can be traced to his young daughter “who asked her father why they couldn’t see the picture he had just taken without having to wait?” (p.72). Once you have identified a precise Why, the next stage is to ask What If. Westergreen asked “What if we could map the DNA of music?” (p.101) and founded Pandora Radio. Next, at the How stage, a rapid test-and-learn approach is emphasized – examples shown include IDEO, MIT Media Labs, Google, Facebook.
The chapter on business builds on the need to keep questioning alive in an environment of rapid change and uncertainty. Impactful questions in the chapter include “Why are we in business?” (p.140), “What if our company didn’t exist?” (p.145) and “What if we could become a cause and not just a company?” (p.147). By asking these kinds of questions, Panera Cares, a pay-what-you-want café chain serves over a million hungry people a year while covering costs. Questioning can be used in experiments, brainstorming, leadership, mission statements and to create a culture of inquiry.
The last chapter on questioning for life has successful, creative people using questioning to steer them towards their passion, purpose and courage to chart their path. Berger covers many approaches: appreciative inquiry – “What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?” (p.193); experimenting – “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” (p.199); finding that one big, beautiful question – “What do you want to say? Why does it need to be said? What if you could say it in a way that has never before been done? How might you do that?” (p.215).
I found it very interesting that the book probes into the very simple, common, and almost unnoticed tool of questioning. I reflected on what it means to have a questioning mindset – curiosity, risk-taking, experimentation, openness, flexibility, intelligence and a spirit of inquiry. Questioning and creativity seem to be two sides of the same coin. I loved the many questions Berger has collected and lavishly sprinkled the book with – many of them opened up my thinking and lit the spark of a new possibility. Berger’s coverage is wide – businessmen, corporations, consultants, educators and experts on questioning. Approaches of these different entities have been nicely sewn in and posed as questions. Techniques like question-storming and converting close-ended questions to open-ended and vice-versa are practical and actionable for the reader right-away. I noticed that the Why-What If-How model closely mirrors the three stages of the Thinking Skills Model of Creative Problem Solving (Puccio, Murdock, & Mance, 2007) – clarification, transformation and implementation. In fact, phrasing statements as questions is an approach used in many creative processes. Overall, the case is made well for the profound impact a spirit of inquiry can have in our lives and work. Questioning is interesting, expansive and transformational. What if we use it to its potential?
Puccio, G. J., Mance, M., & Murdock, M. C. (2007). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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