In ‘Questions are the Answer’ Hal Gregersen has a written an invaluable, counterintuitive book about the power of questions. “Better questions unlock better answers” is what drives Gregersen’s book; by getting better at questioning, you raise your chances of unlocking better answers. I love the related Elon Musk quote which accentuates Gregersen’s point: “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer.”
In the book, Gregersen homes in on so-called ‘catalytic’ questions; these questions dissolve barriers and break down assumptions. He talks about the power of certain questions to remove one or more of the “givens” in a line of thinking, thus opening up space for inquiry that had been closed off. This is often referred to as “reframing”, which involves taking on the perspective that someone else would take on the situation. As soon as you start reframing, you almost automatically start challenging assumptions. Also, reframing a question helps to engage to audience’s attention or energise a conversation. Gregersen encourages us to pause to reframe and revisit our questions before we formulate new answers. Coming up with the right, breakthrough questions thus becomes a deliberate practice, generating a clear space for inquiry and learning.
I like how Gregersen stresses an important prerequisite for our ability to ask good questions: one’s willingness to be wrong. “If you want to find a new angle on a problem and ultimately find a breakthrough solution, you must rid yourself of the impulse always to display deep competence” argues Gregersen. This means being comfortable with not having all the answers or letting go of previously held beliefs.
In the book, Jeff Wilke, a top executive at Amazon, mentions two ways in which we can challenge and reset our mental models. Firstly, through “crucible experiences” which are intense episodes of adversity that push us into intense periods of self-reflection. In crucible moments, people are forced to question assumptions they’ve made and get more clarity about what they value. Secondly, the deliberate practice of raising questions to challenge our mental models. As Wilke says “(…) if you seek out things that you don’t know, and you have the courage to be wrong, to be ignorant – to have to ask more questions and maybe be embarrassed socially – then you build a more complete model which serves you better in the course of your life.” It’s particularly the ability to be wrong which may feel counterintuitive and less accepted in today’s society, where “certitude” tends to be valued highly.
Finally, Gregersen makes the point that creative questioners take their time to clear their minds and reflect deeply on unresolved issues. They often do this silently and in solitude, to try and come up with the right questions. They can then, for example, come up with the appropriate breakthrough question or figure out how to best cascade their questions, going from a broad objective to a small operational detail. Again, this concept of silent thinking time might feel counterintuitive and contrary to how people typically work. “I can’t just sit there thinking, not doing anything?!” you might be thinking or “If I sat there behind my desk just thinking about questions, my boss and colleagues might be thinking that I’ve downed tools!” The point here is that taking time to reflect on your own thoughts is crucial, and gives you the opportunity to work through unresolved problems and come up with new perspectives.
Main learning point: “Questions are the Answer” definitely helped flip my thinking from displaying deep expertise and having all the answers to investing time and effort in devising the right questions. The underlying ability to be vulnerable and accept that we could be wrong feels just as pivotal.
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