Random finds (2016, week 12) — On asking more beautiful questions, and wishful innovation thinking

Mark Storm
11 min readMar 26, 2016


Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

Why do we have to wait for the picture?

“My greatest strength as a consult is to be ignorant and ask a few question,” Peter Drucker once said, allegedly.

In an interview with Drucker on the Dial, Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, talks about the art of asking questions. When asked how leaders can encourage questioning within their company, Berger explains that they should start with making clear that questioning is actually valued. One way of doing this is, is by putting questions out there themselves, and showing openness and even vulnerability by not having all the answers. But too often we hear executives say ‘I don’t want anyone to bring me a question unless they also bring the answer.’ This isn’t a very clever thing to say, far from it, Berger continues, because questions don’t always have immediate answers. You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart, or ‘beautiful’ question as he calls it, to also have the perfect answer. Finding this answer may be something you have to work on as a team or even a company, which may take years.

You should not expect the person who comes up with a really smart question to also have the perfect answer.

As a recipe for coming up with better questions, Berger points out we will have to train ourselves to become better observers because questions often come from observation — from listening and paying close attention. We should step back from habitual thinking or even from our daily routines, and look at what we’re doing with a fresh and discerning eye. Often we are just too familiar with the things we do. We take things for granted without questioning why we do it in the first place. Is what we do still relevant? What was the original reason for having this particular process? Does it still hold up today or are we doing something that no longer makes sense? It is extremely hard for people to ask these kind of questions unless you make an extra effort.

People shouldn’t be afraid to ask fundamental questions — questions that sometimes may seem a bit naive. They should also dig deep into their questions and ‘live with them’, as Berger calls it. “Questions are things that we pursue and live with over time. And we get comfortable with the uncertainty [of not knowing] while we are chasing them, in the hope that we will eventually get to an answer.”

And finally, you have to act on your questions. “This is the really important thing that a lot of people don’t do or understand about questioning,” Berger says. “They think it’s like philosophy. That you raise an important question, think about it a while, maybe debate it with someone, and then you move on. But if we’re talking about innovative questioning, you have to act on those questions if you want something to happen.” Innovative questioning often moves from ‘why’, to ‘what if’ to ‘how (do we make it happen)’. “If you are a good effective questioner,” Berger says, “you will have to ask those three questions and follow through.”

Questions often come from observation — from listening and paying close attention.

When asked what Berger’s favorite question is, he brings up the 3 year old daughter of the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Edwin E. Land, who simply asked why she had to wait for the picture? What she was doing, obviously without knowing it, was challenging the assumption (that you had to wait for a picture). Her father than started to think about that question in a different way, and he moved on to ‘what if we did is?’ and ‘how might we do that?’ And eventually he created the instant camera. This example shows that an innocent outsider can sometimes ask a question in a way that reframes reality.”

At the end of the interview, Berger talks about the idea of using questioning to figure out your purpose. He refers to Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, who asks, when interviewing people or hiring them for a job, ‘when you’re looking back on your career twenty years from now, what would you say you have accomplished?’ Very few people actually think about this. Berger’s own answer would be, that looking back, he would have been able to spread the idea of the importance of asking beautiful questions, and that this has lead to many good things.

If your wonder what your Inquiry Quotient is — whether you’re a natural ‘Beautiful Questioner’ or not — answer these 10 quick questions and see how you score.

More on questions

In a recent interview with MIT Sloan Management Review (The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution), John Hagel, co-chairman for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, not only talks about how digital technology puts pressure on businesses to fundamentally change their strategies and cultures. Right at the end, also he makes an interesting remark about the importance of asking the ‘right’ questions:

“Leadership in the future, I believe, is actually around being able to frame the right questions, the highest-impact questions, where the leader is actually saying, ‘I have no clue, but this is a really important question. And if we could figure it out, we would do amazing things.’ That’s a completely different model of leadership.”

“Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy.” — Elon Musk

Some questions indeed have the potential to catalyse breakthroughs and inspire transformations, while others lead to stagnation and demoralization. According to Marilee Adams, president and founder of the Inquiry Institute and author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, the difference lies in whether you ask ‘learner questions’ or ‘judger questions’. Learner questions facilitate progress by expanding options, while judger questions impede progress by limiting perspectives.

“Learner questions are open-minded, curious, and creative,” she says. “They promote progress and possibilities, and typically lead to discoveries, understanding and solutions.” By contrast, judger questions are more closed-minded, certain and critical. “They focus on problems rather than solutions and often lead to defensive reactions, negativity and inertia.” (How The Most Successful People Ask Questions, FastCompany)

Mind the (widening) gap

Conversational intelligence and the art of asking questions are essential ingredients in a culture that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship. Yet, in many, if not most companies neither are encouraged. So, it can’t come as a surprise that a recent survey by Accenture, appropriately titled Clear Vision, Cloudy Execution, shows a gap between what executives want from innovation and their organisation’s ability to deliver. To make matters worse, this gap is getting bigger, not smaller

When it comes to innovation, most companies are just scratching the surface.

In Innovate on Purpose, Jeffrey Phillips, VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation, takes a closer look at the results. “By now everyone knows that innovation is a top three priority for executives,” he writes, “but saying that innovation is important doesn’t mean it will get funded, prioritized and done. The Accenture article goes to great lengths to note that ‘US executives are unrealistic in believing they have the capabilities they need to achieve their bold innovation goals’.”

‘Innovation’ is still defined very narrowly, as improvements to existing products and services. Despite the talking about ‘disruption’, few companies have plans to attempt more radical or disruptive innovation. According to Phillips, most executives and their teams are just scratching the surface.

“If you want to know how important innovation is to a company,” he writes, “let’s track the time and engagement of the senior executives.” According to the Accenture survey, superior innovation performance requires more than c-level oversight. It demands engagement from all levels of the organisation. Looking at the statistics, almost all companies use digital systems to manage innovation processes (85%) or to help them with virtual prototyping (84%). But “if these numbers are to be believed, there are only a couple of conclusions that can be drawn: either these [digital systems] are highly ineffective (assuming they are being used) because the results don’t equate to the investment, or they aren’t being used at all,” Phillips says.

Companies’ confidence in their innovation performance is not justified.

Phillips: “It’s not until page 10 that we get this dinger: 67% (two-thirds!) of respondents believe that their organizations are more risk averse than before. So we are supposed to believe that more companies are doing more innovation, while risk aversion is growing?” And, worse, he says, 82% of respondents don’t distinguish between incremental and radical disruption. They are using the same tools, methods, thinking and decision making criteria for incremental and disruptive innovation, and wondering why all the ideas seem so bland. At a time when innovation is in high demand, far too many companies are paying it lip service, then are astonished when new entrants and startups completely disrupt the industry or market.

“Large corporations can’t afford to pay lip service to innovation or treat it as an interesting experiment. They need to embrace innovation and make it a core strategic philosophy, well funded and with plenty of resources. Otherwise they will play defense and wake up to discover their markets or products have been disrupted.”

In Are we playing snakes and ladders with innovation?, Paul Hobcraft sheds his light on the survey results: “We can’t afford to play this game of ‘snakes and ladders’ with innovation anymore and this survey should be a real wake up call to all those living in their ‘corporate’ ivory towers the real world is ‘eating you for breakfast, lunch and dinner’, the attacks on your established positions are constant, global and relentless. If you don’t feel surrounded, you soon will be.”

“This is the right time to wake up to realities,” he continues, “and reading a report / survey as seemingly benign but lethal as this one from Accenture, one that on first read it might seem, is ‘clothed’ in reassuring tones, yet it does seem to have some very worrying messages within it, believe me.”

“Innovation is not a game to be left to chance, the roll of the dice or the ‘quiet’ acceptance of playing seemingly ‘snakes and ladders’ with it.”

Three more finds on innovation:

A bit more …

In How GE Exorcised the Ghost of Jack Welch to Become a 124-Year-Old Startup, Bloomberg’s Devin Leonard and Rick Clough explore how Jeff Immelt, Jack Welch’s successor, is transforming the company, and see how, a decade after taking over, his long bet on the Internet of Really Big Things seems to be paying off.

“Today, GE executives — sorry, team members — take classes in yoga and meditation and ‘suminagashi’, the Japanese art of painting on still water. The White House has become a low-key place where visitors can sip artisanal coffee rather than martinis. The Pit has a window through which the sun shines.”

“It’s part of a much larger transformation at GE orchestrated by Jeff Immelt, Welch’s successor as chief executive officer. Most notably, GE is moving its headquarters from suburban Fairfield, Conn., land of golf and bonuses, where it’s been since 1974, to Boston, the Athens of America. The company is selling off its division that makes refrigerators and microwave ovens. Now it’s focused on electric power generators, jet engines, locomotives, and oil-refining gear. And it’s made a significant bet on developing software to connect these devices to the Internet. There’s a term for this trend of adding network connections to hardware not usually considered computers: the Internet of Things. GE believes its opportunity lies in what it calls the Internet of Really Big Things.”

Read here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-17/how-ge-exorcised-the-ghost-of-jack-welch-to-become-a-124-year-old-startup.

As the dreams of Silicon Valley fill our world, could the dowdy historian Arnold Toynbee help prevent a nightmare? This is the question Ian Beacock explores in Humanist among machines (Aeon).

“We need critics who can pull back the curtain, who can scrutinise digital technology without either antipathy or boosterism, who can imagine how it might be used differently. We need critics who can ask questions of value.”

“Our society isn’t very good at asking these kinds of questions. Since the 1970s, the free market has slowly become our master metaphor. Its benchmarks of efficiency and profit have become ours. Our capacity to respond to the world and engage with one another as citizens has eroded, and instead we’ve become consumers in all things, rational actors seeking competitive advantage.”

“It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high. We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’”

Read here: https://aeon.co/essays/arnold-toynbee-shines-a-light-on-the-humanities-role-today?utm_content=bufferc37f6&utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos,” Saul Bellow told an interviewer in 1966, “a stillness which characterizes prayer.”

“Few artists have captured this stillness more movingly than the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893–1983), whose masterpieces upended the conventions of visual art by giving life to a new aesthetic of vibrant stillness,” Maria Popova (Brainpickings) writes in I Work Like a Gardener: Joan Miró on Art, Motionless Movement, and the Proper Pace of Creative Labor.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.” — Joan Miró

Read here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/09/17/i-work-like-a-gardener-joan-miro/?utm_content=buffer1a7cc&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

“Technology should not give us the answers, it should give us the insight and the space to ask the questions.” — Ed Barton in The Curiosity Machine — A vision for the future of (virtual) learning.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought