It would seem that most of us have been conditioned to prefer answers to questions.
The right answers are the path to success in school and work, to landing a job and advancing one’s career. Having the right answer is often a key that unlocks social acceptance.
The result of such conditioning is that we become uncomfortable with unanswered questions, or worse yet, unanswerable ones.
Research featured in a recent Freakonomics story explored our discomfort with not having a ready answer when a question is posed to us. According to the researchers interviewed, the three hardest words for a person to utter are “I don’t know.” Rather than acknowledge that simple fact, most people will fudge some sort of answer.
This phenomenon has life-and-death consequences in criminal trials when eyewitnesses—whose accounts may differ wildly—are unable or unwilling to say, “I don’t know.” The subconscious searches for a plausible narrative that conspires with the desire to avoid looking dumb as well as unconscious a priori assumptions. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are just one example of this phenomenon.
Certainty is, of course, crucial to daily life. Questioning everything all the time like Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob? is not a viable way to live. But it is this very baseline of certainty regarding most things that can free us up to ponder tough questions on a few things.
Ironically, “I don’t know” is the beginning of knowledge.
There are pivotal moments in business, as with the rest of life, when questions are far more important than answers. Questions are, by their very nature, creative platforms. Maybe even a form of rebellion.
When asking a question of oneself or one’s organization, it is the first step to envisioning a better future, but it contains the seeds of revolution—a willingness to dispense with business as usual.
The great inventors, artists, scientists and theologians were all really good questioners. Some died for their inquisitiveness.
Here are some of the most powerful questions that we might want to ask our ourselves and our colleagues:
This is the most visionary of all questions. It requires imagination to visualize a parallel universe in which things are better or different. Once the vision is captured, it remains then to reverse engineer in order to reach it.
“Why?” is that question that pokes at underlying causes. It is rebellious. It pokes a stick at the status quo. People in leadership are often threatened by “Why?” questions. So it takes a brave business leader to encourage her employees to be asking them. Asking “Why?” can be the beginning of eliminating useless bureaucracy, irrelevant traditions and unthinking behaviors.
This is the question that dares to believe. It is audacious.
In an interview prior to the 2014 Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reflected on how asking “Why Not?” fueled his audacity to take the Seahawks to the biggest victory in American sports:
“I remember my dad asking me one time, and it’s something that has always stuck with me: ‘Why not you, Russ?’ You know, why not me? Why not me in the Super Bowl? So in speaking to our football team earlier in the year, I said, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we be there?’”
How Can This Be Better?
When a new initiative goes from idea to implementation, it benefits from a good deal of feedback, percolation and refinement along the way. There’s a bit of an 80-20 rule at work here, or maybe more of a 90-10 rule. The big blocks of a good idea—a new ad campaign for instance—come together pretty quickly. But then comes the agonizing work of nuance and refinement. But it’s precisely here that the difference between B+ and A+ is achieved.
As I look back on the very best work we have produced as an agency—especially the award-winners—it’s clear that each benefited from relentlessly asking, “How could this be just a little bit better?” It takes longer, requires more work, maybe even a good fight or two over the details; but what emerges is the best of the best.
This is an interesting question because it invites an expanded perspective that can inform important decisions. “Who else?” can we invite to comment on this? Whose opinion have we not considered? What uninformed assumptions are we making?
Company leaders generally have a great deal of confidence in the decisions made in the c-suite; but what do front line employees think? How do the folks on the factory floor or the customer service teams feel about the new idea? While company leadership can’t function as a democracy, it nevertheless thrives on 360-degree input, and the humility to take that feedback seriously.
Chief Questioning Officer
Ronald Reagan humorously opened a press conference by saying, “Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement.” Sadly, that’s the approach that too many business leaders take in meetings that should be about brainstorming for new ideas.
People who lead their organizations will benefit by occasionally embracing the role of Chief Questioning Officer. As CQO, they take the lead in driving their organizations forward into new territory. Most employees are conditioned to comply rather than question, and most companies reward that behavior. It is in most people’s interest not to question anything. But leaders can change that culture by letting their people see them wrestle with questions..to admit they don’t know the answers to everything. (Trust me, your employees already know you don’t know everything.) By being a good questioner, a leader both models and encourages creative questioning among his colleagues and staff.
Ad agencies especially need to do this, resisting the need to look clever in front of their clients, admit what they don’t know, and ask more questions.
You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.
—Nobel Laureate in Literature Naguib Mahfouz