I believe the best questions are naive questions because they sometimes set you off on a different path.
Incredibly naive questions “work” because they lower defenses. They allow us to put aside stock answers. They help activate prior knowledge and sometimes get to the root of the situation.
Questioning enables us to innovate, solve problems, and move ahead in our careers and lives. It also improves and informs our judgment, allows for learning, sets the stage for change, and creates dialogue.
The challenge is that sometimes a question may seem simple or naive to you, but we misjudge what others consider to be naive.
Questions are being identified as the new answers. Questions can catalyze innovation and reveal more effective answers. We have a chance to take the things that we think we know and look at them a little bit differently.
Towards a More Beautiful Question
In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Berger describes a three-part framework for asking questions, Why, What If, and How. I value Berger’s framework, but I think it is missing a necessary fourth piece, What? We need to organize our thinking about what we don’t know.
WHAT? This allows us to get to the root of the construct and align our definitions of the subject matter before continuing the conversation. By embracing the mind of a beginner, we’re free of the habits and expectations of the expert. This position is more open to new possibilities and divergent thinking.
WHY? This allows us to understand the problem, solution, motivation, or context more fully. We often move forward to get things done, be productive, and stay on schedule. As we engage with a problem or situation, we should ask about the purpose, motivation, or other possibilities.
WHAT IF? This allows space in the conversation for imagining and building a culture of inquiry. This is an opportunity to unlock good questions, manage constraints, and define the focus. This engages our brain and starts combining old ideas with new ideas that sit idly by in our subconscious. This is where innovation thrives.
HOW? This allows a focus on action and getting things done. We think we’ve identified a solution to our situation, but does it work? We need to remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect all at once. This is where the pragmatic discussions sometimes lead to stagnation and paralysis. Don’t get stuck here. Test, revise, and iterate.
Knowledge through inquiry
Many times our reputations are based on what we know. If you want others to think you know things…you need to get out there and learn. You can’t learn if you don’t ask questions.
You are doing the right thing by asking questions. Don’t worry if it is a naive question, or be concerned that it might be a “stupid question.” If you will be able to understand in more detail if you are given a detailed and understandable answer to a question…ask it.
The more questions you ask, the more you’ll develop knowledge, and you’ll achieve that reputation as a knowledgable individual.
Developing a culture of inquiry
The challenge with a culture of inquiry is that we’re often concerned about what others think. Whether it is a partner, colleague, or team, we need to work with others. In truth, we should want to work with others as it makes us better.
As Einstein suggests, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”
There is no easy way to embed naive, essential questions in collaborative discussions. Berger’s book suggests that over time, a group develops a tolerance for it.
There is a need to see that incredibly naive questions are not necessarily a sign of weakness, stupidity, or lack of team spirit. Naive questions might be viewed by others as slowing down progress, diverting from the work at hand, or not being productive.
The key is to take time and pause in these discussions to ask whether what you’re actually doing is needed and that a focus on progress or be productive isn’t a diversion or the wrong path. The pause in the discussion, or slackening the focus on “getting things done” may be just what is needed.
Lastly, it is important to note when you should refrain from asking a question. Consider your role and the power dynamics of the group. Are you the leader of the group? Are you a visitor or outsider? Have you already asked a ton of questions and you are hogging up the mic? Are there members of the group that have not had a chance to speak up? What voices are not being heard?
Spark breakthrough ideas
Asking questions is natural and intuitive. Naive questions allow us to think, innovate, and address problematic situations. Questions are an important part of the way we facilitate self-inquiry and engage with others. Questions are essential to learning and staying viable in a changing, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex future.