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Why Ask Questions?

The average four-year-old girl asks 390 questions per day, mostly to her mother.

Yep, you read that right. Three hundred ninety. Sorry, Mom.

Warren Berger, our keynote speaker at GovLoop’s State and Local Innovators Virtual Summit and author of A More Beautiful Question, said this number isn’t all that surprising. At that young age, children are in a state of continuous improvement. They improve by asking questions.

Unfortunately, by the time a person leaves high school, the number of questions she asks per day will have drastically decreased.

Why?

There are a lot of reasons we stop asking questions. Some of them have to do with our natural development. But another main factor is the way our education systems, and eventually our work environments, reward inquiry. That is to say, they don’t.

More often, you are rewarded for having answers–knowing how to solve a problem, rather than asking what the problem is or how it arose. As a result, people become more inclined to seek answers, rather than develop questions.

So what?

The problem is that questions help us move forward and spur innovation. Through his research, Berger has found that top innovators are usually people who never stopped asking questions. Berger said many of them are even childlike in their questioning habits.

As people stop asking questions, innovation suffers. Potential breakthroughs are missed. People don’t move forward because they are stuck seeking answers to outdated questions.

Berger asserted that questioning is now an essential survival skill. As the world quickly evolves to embrace new technology, new data, and new processes, the value of questions rises significantly faster than the value of answers. By the time you have an answer, the question will have already changed. The person who asks the right questions will be the person best able to adapt to his new environment.

But, what’s this got to do with my job?

Silicon Valley startups—where Berger says he sees many of these top questioners and innovators—encourage questioning. However, Berger lamented that, “Organizations are like people. The older they get, the less they question.” Unfortunately, there are few institutions older than government.

This is especially daunting because, as a public servant, you are primarily responsible for helping the public move forward and adapt to new challenges. In order to find the breakthrough innovations that will help you serve others, questioning should be a part of your organization’s core.

According to Berger, spurring a culture of questions and innovation requires individuals to lead the charge. So your job is two-fold. First, start asking questions about how you can better serve the public. Then, encourage others in your organization to ask more questions, too.

How do I ask better questions?

Berger emphasized that, “Questioning is our ability to organize our thinking around what we don’t’ know.” But how do you hone that ability?

First and foremost, you have to get into the habit of asking questions. In other words, practice makes perfect. The more you ask questions, the better you will be at doing it.

Additionally, Berger offered five tips to help people ask better questions:

  1. Step back. Especially in the public sector, we often ask questions like ‘How do we do it more efficiently?’ That’s a fair question, but Berger suggests taking a step back to look at the broader picture. This allows you to ask more transformative questions, like “Why are we doing it all?”
  2. Be on the lookout for mysteries and inconsistencies. Look for discrepancies or missing pieces. These often trigger the best and most needed questions.
  3. Embrace the power of collaborative enquiry. Ask questions in groups so that a variety of perspectives can be added. This tactic is often used to power innovation in Silicon Valley. Berger suggests beginning the discussion with asking, “How might we…?”
  4. Ask ‘Why?’, ‘What if?’ and ‘How?’ Berger calls this the “holy trinity of questioning”. These three questions, asked in sequence, can help you understand the problem (why?), ideate (what if?), and ultimately prototype and refine a solution (how?).
  5. Be positive. The way you ask questions is just as important as what you ar asking. Positive questions are more likely to illicit positive feedback. So instead of asking “Why are we so bad at X?”, ask “How can we build on our strengths to get better at X?”

Questioning is an essential skill that many of us forget to practice. To learn more about how to incorporate questioning into your routine, listen to the on-demand version of Berger’s presentation, Why Ask Questions?, by clicking here.

GovLoop recently hosted its State and Local Innovators Virtual Summit, an all-day, virtual event with six different online trainings, networking opportunities and resources to help you do your job better. Be sure to read the other recaps here.

Photo Credit: Eric/Flickr

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3 Comments

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Warren Berger

Thanks for this great (and fast) write-up of my presentation, Hannah. I was especially glad to read your thoughts on how public-sector workers can use questioning in their line of work.

Re: my 5 tips for getting better at questioning, if someone is looking for even more info on those tips, with article links, I have a dedicated “takeaways” page on my site at http://amorebeautifulquestion.com/takeaways/ –Warren

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Profile Photo Dustin Renwick

Two really good points in this post:

1. Designing better systems that reward problem-solving as a process instead of an exercise in answer generation.

2. Not just asking questions, asking the right questions.

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Nena Roberts

Ms. Moss, you have hit the nail on the head! I’m an “older” person who still asks questions. It’s the best way not only for me to learn, but to gain different perspectives that cause me to think and/or rethink the issue. Thank you for your words in this article that needs to reach everyone.

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