Question Marks (Sheet of Cookies)

What Socrates, a Better Foot, and the DNA of Music Have in Common

Socrates would have been a great mentor.

(No, I haven’t pivoted this blog from business to philosophy, so bear with me.)

Want to propel your business forward? Then you can’t beat the Socratic method. Wikipedia defines it as “a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.”

I was raised on the Socratic method, so I have a little bias here. In college, it was the rare class where a professor lectured at us. Most of the time, we’d talk, ask questions, argue, and often raise a few more questions. While it seemed at the time that I wasn’t learning anything terribly practical, it turns out I was learning the most important lesson of all: how to think critically, assess, and evaluate, and not take the first answer as necessary the answer.

Warren Berger wants us all to be more like Socrates.

In A More Beautiful Question, Berger writes eloquently about the importance of inquiry in the business world. He notes that while successful entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs question(ed) everything, most business leaders don’t:

“I found few companies that actually encouraged questioning in any substantive way… On the contrary, many companies—whether consciously or not—have established cultures that tend to discourage inquiry in the form of someone asking, for example, Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?”

 

Berger points to inquiry as the catalyst for some pretty awesome innovations*:

• If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a better foot?
• Why do we have to wait for the picture?
• What if we could map the DNA of music?
• What if a running shoe could run your life?

The book looks at three key stages of questioning: (1) Why? (the start of the journey); (2) What If? (what if we tried X? what if we explored Y?); and (3) How? (how can we do X?).

Note that many people and many companies end with how–and don’t instead use that as the starting point for asking more why and what questions.

It’s harder to ask questions.

Actually, it’s easier just to have answers. Our bosses like answers. Our customers (and clients) want answers. And being an “expert” positions us as, well, smart. Berger quotes Dan Ariely, who has written that many business leaders want answers “because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking.”

A More Beautiful Question is that rare business book you read less to know something and more to think about how you can learn, think some more, and innovate. I want to buy copies of this book for everyone I know. I love everything about this book—that it makes me think, the poetry of Berger’s clean writing, and the passion with which he talks about the need to ask beautiful questions—in offices, in schools, and in life.

*Van Phillips (Cheetah prosthetic); Edwin Land (Polaroid); Tim Westergren (Pandora Radio); Nike.

**Disclosure: I received a free copy of A More Beautiful Question in exchange for agreeing to review it–but without any restrictions on what I might say.

Photo by Scott McLeod (Flickr).

 

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Comments ( 2 )

  • Hi Daria,

    I think all businesses need to do what you are proposing here.
    I can take example from the choice of education stream one takes in India. It is all about “I want to be an engineer, doctor, accountant …”. There is no thought given to “why” one would like to get a degree. All they want to think about is how much money they will make in future.
    I have seen people getting disillusioned with their work because it is not what they wanted to do but were forced to choose that line because of peer or family pressure.
    It is not very much different for companies who want to win battles in saturated market which is far more difficult than creating their own niche. This is where they need to ask a lot of questions. I have worked with a few MNCs and frankly even over there , “why” is not appreciated. Amazon and Google are different breeds where such questions may be welcome . Thus they are the market leaders.

    • Hi Ashvini,

      Great point about asking “why” early (and often). Better to have your “identity crisis” at 21 than at 35 or 50 after you’ve invested years being miserable in the wrong career. It’s never easy to shift gears, but it’s a lot better when you give yourself permission to explore. Plus who wants a miserable doctor operating on them or an unhappy lawyer going through the motions?