Warren Berger is an author who frequently writes about issues related to creativity and the impact of technology. He writes regularly for Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review and was a long time contributing editor for Wired. I first contacted and got to know Warren several years ago after the publication of Glimmer, his fascinating book about the world of intelligent design. Since then we have talked frequently about the links between technology and creativity. Glimmer led Warren to start thinking about the role that questions and questioning play in creativity and innovation. Questions, according to Warren, are the very essence of creativity. That’s, in fact, the subject of his forthcoming book. You can find out more about it at www.AMoreBeautifulQuestion.com. We had an opportunity to talk last week about his latest project:
Question: Warren, thanks for sitting down with me. Perhaps you can start by giving a little background or what this book is about and how you came up with the idea for it.
Berger: It’s definitely a direct outgrowth from when I was researching Glimmer and researching creative people, innovators, designers and inventors. What I found was that they all have their own unique creative processes but there are certain common elements they have which I talked a lot about in Glimmer.
But it was one element that jumped out. They tended to be really good questioners. That became such an interesting focal point even though it was only one chapter in Glimmer, when I would go around and talk about Glimmer to universities, companies I would talk about this design thinking and everyone would focus on to the questioning part.
What does that mean to be a good questioner? People would say I think of myself as a good questioner. This is a great topic. I love this. I found there was so much interest in questioning that I thought “gee. Maybe this should be a book.
Maybe there should be a book that’s totally about the importance of questioning in relation to innovating or bringing about something new and then looking at how we question or fail to question or whether we can get better at it. That became the thrust of the new book.
Question: What is a good question?
Berger: Well. There’s all kinds of definitions of it. In my book what I consider to be a beautiful question, a really good question is a question that looks at an existing situation or problem and breaks it down to its most fundamental issues.
It could be why are we doing this practice that we’ve been doing for the past twenty years? Why are we doing it this way? What’s the rationale behind it? What’s the history of it? Does it still make sense now? That’s a good question, a beautiful question because it really shakes things up.
My definition of a beautiful question is something that challenges the way we think about something. Also it sets in motion the possibility that we might bring a bad change. The question itself becomes a very dynamic force.
It’s like once you raise these kinds of questions you almost set something in motion. You get people thinking about the possibilities that gee, maybe there’s a different way to do this. Then the question can evolve and should evolve over time.
That’s one of the things I talk about in the book. It might start out as a why question, where you just say why? Why are we doing this? Why is our health care system operating in this particular way that it is? Why is our business based on this principle? You start with why but if you follow through on this.
That’s where you get into alternative ideas. The term for this that is used sometimes is divergent thinking. You get into opening yourself up to all kinds of new possibilities. In the book I use the term connective inquiry you might be doing a lot of connecting of ideas.
You might say gee, what if we took our approach and combined it with this approach they’re doing in this other industry that’s not even our industry? This is a very common way of creating and innovating in this kind of thinking this kind of what if speculating thinking.
That’s almost the second stage of questioning that I talk about it in the book. Then the third stage we tend to gravitate towards the how. We go from why to what if to how. The how stage is where you go from divergent to conversion thinking.
You start to narrow down your options and say okay we’ve thought about what if and we had all these possibilities now, let’s think about how. Which of these ideas seems the most doable and how would we actually do it?
Then the how process becomes a whole other kind of questioning where you test things up see how they work. How does this work? How does this prototype play out? How can we test out this idea to see what people think about it?
If they don’t like it how can we fine-tune it? How can we alter it a little bit? The how is the one that hopefully takes you to a finished solution of some kind that takes you to the end of game of change. But as I say in the book questioning is really never ending.
Even if you innovate and even if you come up with the greatest innovation in the world at some point you’re going to have to start that cycle all over again with that innovation. You’ll probably be going to have to ask okay, this innovation was great last year but why are we doing it the same way this year?
Question: How does one move from questioning and talking to actually moving towards action?
Berger: Well, that’s a big challenge because questioning can be never ending. Questioning can be paralyzing. If you’re in the mode of just questioning everything you do in a certain way you will never get anywhere.
People who are innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders will all tell you the same thing that questioning is really, really important but you have to know when to stop asking certain types of questions and when to shift into acting on your questions.
That’s why I have it laid out in stages. I think the why and the what if stages are great for speculation and for creative, wide-open, blue skies thinking and for challenging your own ideas. That’s where you’re doing that very philosophical questioning in the why stages and somewhat into the second what if stage.
The how stage is where you really start to put your foot forward and really start to act on your questioning. That’s why how questions are really important because you can spend forever you’re speculating on what if we did this, what if we did that.
As you get to the how are we going to do this, how we’re actually going to do this that forces action. What I say in the book is that what you really have to do is test your questions in the real world to see if they work. Otherwise they’re just talk.
We’ve all been in philosophy classes where questions go on for ever and there are no answers. That’s a certain kind of questioning that’s valid for some people but I’m not interested in that kind of questioning. I’m interested in the kind of questioning that leads to something that leads to some kind of change.
The only way you can do that is by moving to the how stage where you say how are we going to make this question real? How are we going to put it out there for the world? There’s all kinds of ways to do that.
The essential question behind the lean start of model is how can we experiment with our ideas? How can we get them out there and try them quickly and see what works and what doesn’t? That to me that’s all part of the how stage of questioning. It’s all about how do we get it out there?
How do we see what works? How do we see what doesn’t work? How do we get feedback? Feedback is really important on your questions. If you’re asking questions yourself and all you’re doing writing them down in your notebook and putting them away I’m not sure that’s not doing much good.
That’s a really central point in my book because again when we think about questioning we often think about it in a philosophical way or almost in a passive way that you sit back and you question the things but you don’t do anything about it. My whole book is based on the idea that if you want to use questioning in a useful way it has to be very forward moving. You have to keep pushing the question forward, forward, forward.
Question: In terms of content creators and creative people are there questions that they should be asking just in general or questions that you have found that creative people often ask?
Berger: I think creative people ask the same things that other people would ask which is whatever genre they’re in, whatever type of content they’re creating in they may want to look at the prevailing ways that people are creating content in that field and ask why is there so much of this type of content?
What if we were to try something a little different? What if we were to go on a different direction? I think creative people can also benefit from that idea of connective inquiry which is really about; how do you merge different ideas from different subject areas, different fields, and different types of media?
If you’re in print media what can you learn from what the blogs are doing. If you’re in blogs what can you learn from what people are doing on Youtube. How can you incorporate that? That’s all about what if I take an idea from this realm And try to merge it with my realm? What could we learn from what other people are doing? That’s a big, big question that opens up a lot of things.
One of the things I often say when I talk about this is we think of creating original things, original content or original inventions as being this process of inventing the wheel. You have to do something that’s so original that no one has done it before and for creative people that can be really almost paralyzing.
To think of something that’s never been done before is almost impossible it feels everything’s been done. It’s much more liberating to realize that most new creations of any type whether it’s the iPad or whatever you can think of are a lot of great new websites or blogs but most new creations are hybrids of things that already exist.
Usually people are taking something and putting a new spin on it and maybe doing a little bit of a mash up of a style that you see in one area and then incorporating a style from another area. Obviously the fashion people are very good at this. Hip hop music is very good at this. A lot of the culture that we live in today is about remixes, mash ups, taking something and putting a new spin on it.
In my parlance I would call all of that connective thinking or connective inquiry in now can you look around you and see are the things you can borrow from and then do some creative mixing and matching.
Question: Who are the people best positioned to ask questions?
Berger: An interesting phenomenon of questioning is that outsiders often are better questioners than experts or insiders. Experts have trouble with questioning because when you’re an expert you’re really not supposed to question, you’re supposed to know already. You’re supposed to be the guy that has the answers.
It’s a little bit of an issue with the experts. Experts can be questioners but they need to step out of that role a little bit of feeling everything they do all of their values tie up in the answers that they can provide to people. They need to loosen up a little bit and be willing to challenge their own assumptions. If they do that they can be good questioners too.
A lot of times the certain types of consulting firms are associated more with – I won’t name any names but let’s say a famous one starts with an M – coming in and telling you what to do telling you what to do, telling your company needs to do.
What I find is that the best consultants understand that’s it’s really about the questioning more than giving people off the shelf answers or solutions. That’s a big way that plays out in the business world and those are some of the people in the business world.
If you just go to individual innovators whether it’s Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs starting a business so many examples like Netflix starting with just retestings asking a really basic question.
Video rentals they way they are back in the block buster why am I paying these late fees, why this whole system just doesn’t work for me? There’s got to be a better way.
They did a connective inquiry and what if inquiry in terms of saying what if we designed a video film service that was more like a health club where you joined it on a monthly basis, you paid a membership fee and that became the way you did it? That was the origins of Netflix.
I just came across a great quote from the guy who’s inherited the mantel of Einstein. He’s the greatest physicist in modern times. This guy is named Edward Witten.
He said basically his time is spent trying to figure out what the question is as well as what the answer is. You got to find the right question. It just cuts across. I think probably you’ll find that leading figures in almost every discipline are big questioners.
Question: Great. This has been really good. Thanks, so much, Warren.