Can Asking Better Questions Make Us Better Innovators?

How Are You Educating Yourself?

We often think of innovation as problem-solving.  One mistake in this approach is to place all of your focus on the solving part, and not enough on the problem.

Finding better problems is actually a key innovation skill.  And you find better problems by asking better questions.

Warren Berger looks at how innovators, entrepreneurs and other creative business leaders use questions to be more effective in his excellent new book A More Beautiful Question.

One argument that he makes is that as the world becomes more complex, the value of answers goes down, while the value of questions goes up.  Why? Because an answer is usually very context specific, but a good question will still be valid across changing contexts.

Question Answer Value


In an interview at 800CEORead, he talks about the value of questions in innovation:

Q: The book is also filled with stories of business breakthroughs that began with a question. What do you consider to be some of the more interesting examples?

WB: The cell phone started with a question. So did The International Red Cross and the Olympics, as well as the Internet. Questioning gave us car windshield wipers and instant cameras—the latter can be traced to the question, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?,” asked by the 3-year-old daughter of inventor Edwin Land, who would later start Polaroid. Companies such as Netflix, Pandora, Dropbox, Square, Pixar, and many others can be traced back to a “founding question”—though my favorite, just because it’s so odd, involved a college football coach who asked, “Why aren’t the players urinating more?” That question led to the realization that the sweating players weren’t replenishing fluids well enough, which in turn led to the creation of Gatorade and a $20 billion sports drink industry. So while it may have sounded like a weird question, it turned out to be a beautiful one.

This is a theme that Stefan Bucher also picks up in his book 344 Questions.  His goal in this book is to ask questions that will help creative people have the impact that they’re aiming for on the world.

Maria Popova gives a great summary of the book, which is both beautifully designed and very useful.  Here is one of the pages from the book:

How Are You Educating Yourself?

Each page is framed around one core question – like How Are You Educating Yourself?  That’s a pretty good question for anyone reading this, since you’re presumably working on that right now…

Leigh Buchanan looks at the issue of asking questions as well in a post on questions that will make your business better.  Some of my favourites from this list include:

  • How can we become the company that would put us out of business? –Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group 
  • What counts that we are not counting? –Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and head of global hospitality for Airbnb  – Conley explains, “In any business, we measure cash flow, profitability, and a few other key metrics. But what are the tangible and intangible assets that we have no means of measuring, but that truly differentiate our business? These may be things like the company’s reputation, employee engagement, and the brand’s emotional resonance with people inside and outside the business.”
  • Are we changing as fast as the world around us? –Gary Hamel, author and management consultant
  • Did my employees make progress today? –Teresa Amabile, author and Harvard Business School professor – Amabile explains, “Forward momentum in employees’ work has the greatest positive impact on their motivation.”
  • What was the last experiment we ran? –Scott Berkun, author
  • What stupid rule would we most like to kill? –Lisa Bodell, CEO, FutureThink

Overall, it is absolutely true that asking better questions will make us more innovative, and more effective.

Here are some more to think about:

  • Who do you want your customer to become?  This comes from Michael Schrage’s excellent eBook – I’ve discussed it previously here.
  • What would I do differently if everyone reporting to me was a volunteer? Because in reality, they are…
  • If we were starting our business today, would we do this? Existing businesses often get locked into ineffective business models because they keep doing the things that worked when they started.  Disruption comes when one of their competitors answers this question “No!” and starts doing things differently.
  • What real needs do we meet for people?

That last one is big.  The Center for Nonviolent Communication has put together a list of universal human needs.  If you want to build an organisation that will last, you better be addressing one of these:

Human Needs

Better questions lead to better answers, better innovation, and a better world. If you want to get better at it, Berger has put together a list of tips that will help.

What questions should you be asking?

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “Can Asking Better Questions Make Us Better Innovators?

  1. Thanks, Tim, for including me and my book in this overview of questioning’s role in innovation. I just ordered a copy of Stefan Bucher’s 344 Questions, one among the many interesting resources and links you list in your excellent post.

    • Thanks for stopping by Warren. I enjoyed your book a great deal. Bucher’s book is worthwhile as well – completely different in approach, but he’s working some of the same ground.

  2. Thanks for posting this- I will definitely need to check out the books you’ve mentioned! Some really interesting questions here! I agree that asking the right questions is an often overlooked part in the open innovation process. I especially like “are we changing as fast as the world around us are changing?”

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