In an age of declarations, assumptions, and sound bites it’s refreshing to come across a book like Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas where curiosity reigns and questions are the goal, not answers.
Berger’s search for beautiful questions – questions that he defines as, “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” takes the reader through an exploration of the science behind questioning, into the minds of breakout innovators, and practical approaches to becoming a better questioner in our work and our lives.
Creative questions like these populate the book:
- If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot? (Van Phillips designer of Olympic-athlete prosthetics)
- What if a video rental business were run like a health club? (The birth of Netflix)
- What if we spend the next hundred years sharing more of our stuff? What if access trumped ownership? (Questions the founders of Airbnb are now asking)
- Can a school be built on questions? (Deborah Meier, pioneer of “small schools” movement, and MacArthur “genius” award winner)
- How do we continually find inspiration so that we can inspire others?
Van Phillips’ talk at the 2011 Cusp Conference outlining his experiments to develop, cheap, easily assembled and customizable prosthetics for people in poverty around the world.
Berger looks at innovators such as Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, and organizations like The Right Question Institute, IDEO, Acumen and Gore (creators of Gore-tex fabric) among many others in his search for common ground on what makes an innovative questioner. Strategies and examples of how to increase divergent thinking, connective inquiry (the idea of taking bits from seemingly unrelated topic areas and putting them together to solve problems), and collaboration with diverse teams pepper the pages, which Berger argues makes your questions stronger and your solutions more creative.
Berger poses a loose framework for creating beautiful questions in three stages, referred to as the, “Why? What If? and How?” phases of questioning. And if you’re feeling stuck, Berger includes a “Questions Index” that includes every question posed in the book for a quick inspirational kick-start.
In our work at Creative New Jersey, we start our community gatherings by posing questions for discussion, because questions work to open up our minds to different points of view, to ways we’ve never thought before, and yes, to the possibility that what we think we know may not be the full story. And for me, that’s exactly what makes those gatherings so beautiful. There’s a particularly juicy question I discovered in Berger’s book that was posed by education innovator Deborah Meier about encouraging skepticism and empathy in her classrooms:
I believe you have to have an open-mindedness to the possibility that you’re wrong, or that anything may be wrong. […] If you can’t imagine you could be wrong, what’s the point of democracy? And if you can’t imagine how or why others think differently, then how could you tolerate democracy?
My role at Creative New Jersey is to help bring people in communities with different life experiences, different backgrounds, philosophies, training, professions and passions together. Each time, I see Berger’s questioning framework playing out – Why, What If, How? I watch as people listen, ask questions of each other, get past the declarations, assumptions, and “easy answers” (because there aren’t easy answers to complex questions) in order to collaboratively tackle issues. Those beautiful, ambitious, actionable questions that seek change light up the people in the room.
So tell me, what’s your beautiful question? Send your questions to us – we want to start a Question Index of our own! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “My beautiful question.”
Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Director of Programming and is a Lead New Jersey 2015 Fellow.
Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration, and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy. Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.