In an age where answers are prioritised over questions: revisiting the importance of asking the right questions, and creating the space for powerful questions to arise.
We recently held an evening THINKTANK session (the sixth in the series) to discuss "The Power of Questions” with 15 Japan CEOs from a variety of leading global retail, lifestyle, technology, and digital brands. The Power of Questions is a theme particularly relevant to – and frequently overlooked by – our working society of today, where it is all too easy to find the answers, and even easier to forget about asking the right questions. We seem to feel that Albert Einstein’s well-known mantra, “Question everything!” has lost its relevance for us – much to the despair of many leading social commentators and thinkers. An independent UK-based survey found that toddlers start out asking their parents almost 300 questions every day – but this pace slows rapidly once kids enter school. And throughout our formative education and business careers, we find ourselves rewarded for finding answers instead of asking questions. In fact, the very act of questioning is often discouraged.
There are many other possible explanations for why our eagerness to question seems to cool so dramatically as we transition from childhood to young adulthood and find our places as members of society. In an age where we are bombarded with information from the moment we awaken to the instant our heads hit the pillow (and beyond, for those who take their iPhones to bed), we subconsciously stem the flow of questions to focus and conserve our energy, instead allowing our trusted “autopilot” mode to engage. Additionally, unless trained as doctors, lawyers, journalists, or psychologists, most of us don’t know where to start in terms of developing and then applying a disciplined and effective questioning process. And ultimately, simply put, we just get too busy to be able to devote time to pondering the deeper questions of life.
At the same time, some business academics have suggested it is now more important than ever before to effectively equip ourselves in the art of asking questions. According to MIT Media Lab’s Joichi Ito, we have shifted from living in a world of being “comfortable experts” – where we would receive our education, join a company, learn our trade, repeat for a few decades, and then retire – to one where we need to be “lifelong learners” just to survive. A “VUCA” world changing so fast and in such unpredictable ways that if you’re not constantly asking questions such as, “Am I climbing the right mountain?”, “Which of my skills will be relevant 5 years from now?”, “What if my job disappears tomorrow?”, and “What can I do that technology still cannot?”, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful for very long. Indeed, recent history shows us the most creative and successful people in business tend, also, to be masters of enquiry. They constantly ask themselves fundamental questions, notice questions no one else has thought of, and come up with powerful answers – such as Polaroid, Air BnB, Pixar, and Netflix – famously spawned after Reed Hastings one day asked himself, “Why do I need to pay these (overdue video rental) fees?”
With all this in mind, I was especially looking forward to exploring the role powerful questions plays in our professional and personal lives with this THINKTANK group – and our discussion did not disappoint. Here are some of the key takeaways from the evening.
Don’t expect to be asked a powerful question at work…
Almost nobody in the group could recall being asked a powerful question – one that had truly made them think differently or shifted their perception – by their managers, colleagues, or teams at work. This seemed surprising, at first. However, given how companies design themselves for speed and efficiency, focusing on alignment and short-term results, perhaps this wasn’t too surprising after all. Everyone agreed this should be a concern: workplaces should aspire to be inspiring and thought-provoking environments where everyone – from junior-level staffers to top management – are constantly encouraged to be more curious, to think differently, and to question what they are doing and why.
Look closer to home for life-changing questions…
Interestingly, everyone agreed the most powerful questions they’ve been asked recently have all come from their children. Questions such as: "Why do you need to go to work?", "What do you do for work?", "Did you know we will live for 100 years? What are you going to do with the rest of your time?", and, "When you were small like me, what did you want to be when you grew up?". Clearly, when in search of deeper inspiration, we should be spending less time in the office and more with those who have a fresher perspective of the world!
Listen attentively, and resist the temptation to give advice…
We did some group exercises where people were told to ask one question each to a nominated group member, with the goal of helping them think through an issue they are currently managing. These exercises quickly turned into “advisory sessions”, where the nominee was soon overwhelmed with (well-meaning) advice on what they “should” do and why, instead of questions designed to help them think for themselves. An illustration of our tendency to jump towards problem-solving and trying to supply the answers, rather than proactive listening and creating opportunities for a powerful question to naturally arise.
Create regular space to think about questions…
Most people in the group said they couldn’t think of any regular occasions, either in their professional or personal lives, that were designed for the sole purpose of reflecting on and responding to fundamental questions about what they are doing or why. All agreed that creating such a space would bring huge benefits in terms of helping them to see alternative perspectives, and breaking out of their usual “thinking framework”. The few leaders who have had experience working with an executive coach, or practicing disciplines such as mindfulness, said these have both been great ways to periodically step back and remind themselves of the “bigger picture”, and to revisit the basic questions guiding their lives.
And create space for your teams to think about questions…
Most of the group felt their teams at work don’t spend nearly enough time asking each other fundamental questions about who they are, or where they are going individually and as a company. They also felt people would likely struggle when trying to figure out where to start in terms of asking the right questions in the first place. There was clear agreement that getting employees together to think about the questions they should be asking themselves and each other, and the most effective ways of doing so. And that creating a more “questions-driven organization” would better equip them in managing the ups and downs of their businesses in the future.
Remember to keep it simple…
Ultimately, the "golden rule" of powerful questions lies in simplicity. Focus on going back to the real basics, don’t make assumptions, and try to keep a “beginner’s mind” – as exemplified in the way our kids seem to excel in asking questions that can stop us in our tracks. So next time you're feeling stuck, why not try asking yourself a simple question: "What would a 5-year-old ask?"
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Our THINKTANK sessions are designed as a peer-to-peer medium for business leaders and professionals to get together for open and authentic discussions about commonly-held leadership issues, ongoing business challenges and opportunities, and professional life in general. For further information on THINKTANK please visit: www.ompartners.org.