Today's Reading



In the word question, there is a beautiful word—quest. I love that word. — Elie Wiesel

One compelling reason to write a book is because you discover things so true and important that they deserve tens of thousands of words and hours of a reader's time to explore—and you sense that most people are living unaware of how crucial those truths are. Here's what I've discovered. First, if you want better answers at work and in life, you must ask better questions. Second, if you want better questions to ask, you do not have to resign yourself to chance and hope they will occur to you. You can actively create for yourself the special conditions in which questions thrive. Third, people who ask great questions are not born different. We all start out with the capacity to ask about things we don't know. The ones who choose to keep their questioning skills strong just get better at it.

How do I know all this is true? The most acceptable assurance I can give you is that I have done my homework. I've reviewed the relevant research literatures, formed my hypotheses, and then gone out in the field to test them through hundreds of interviews with creative people. At this point, by my rough estimate, I have pored over transcripts amounting to some three million words, finding the themes and patterns in those fascinating, and at times humbling, conversations. As a scholar, I am committed to that way of knowing. But at the same time I have come to know the truth of what I am sharing more deeply than any standard research process could tell me.

Over the past thirty years I've taught at several universities across three continents. Today I teach in a place with unique conditions—conditions that encourage everyone to challenge old assumptions and invent the impossible. MIT's campus is a place of constant, generative questioning. As my colleague Andrew Lo describes it, MIT "is a safe zone for innovation—and I know that sounds like a contradiction, because innovation is all about taking risk. But this is an incredibly healthy and unusual situation where students feel like they can actually question received wisdom, actually propose things that may be completely out of left field and outside the box." To come to work every day in such an atmosphere is energizing. It is also a constant reminder of what so many people are missing.

Most of us don't live or work in conditions so primed for questioning. We don't even think much about questions and how, by asking more and better ones, we might unlock entirely different answers. We started out life with great creative curiosity, but we lost it along the way. For a long time, this was true of me as well. I grew up in a home that wasn't much of a safe zone for questioning. To ask what seemed like obvious questions about why things were as they were was seen as outright defiance. At the same time I found early on that certain kinds of questions could shield me, if only by redirecting people's attention to topics that felt safer to focus on. I vaguely grasped that some questions held more power than others.

Later, as a graduate student, I studied under Bonner Ritchie, who was unbelievably skilled at asking tough questions that caused others to do their best thinking. I sought him out as a mentor because of how eye-opening the effects could be. I learned more from time spent with him than I did with other teachers. He systematically pried open my mind and heart to new possibilities with questions. Many of us have had mentors and friends who do the same, if we stop to notice and value that special trait in them.

For the past decade my focus as a scholar, consultant, and coach has been on corporate innovation, studying the effects of asking new questions in start-ups and large organizations in established industries. Twenty-five years ago, my first conversation with Clay Christensen—the Harvard Business School professor who first gained fame for his theory of disruptive innovation—focused on what causes people to ask the right questions. Our collaborations ever since have sharpened my appreciation of the role of questions in breakthroughs. We have both found inspiration in writings by Peter Drucker, who grasped more than fifty years ago the power of changing what you ask.

"The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers," he wrote. "It is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless—if not dangerous—as the right answer to the wrong question." When Clay and I worked with Jeff Dyer to identify five behaviors that make up the "innovator's DNA," the first of those five was the habit of asking more questions.

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