11/20/2017 | Chuck Leddy

Warren Berger is a bestselling author and an expert on innovation. His book “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” has become a classic manual for innovators as they seek answers to today’s most challenging questions. Eric Ries, the bestselling author of “The Lean Startup” said this about Berger’s book: “In the old economy, it was all about having the answers, but in today’s dynamic, lean economy, it’s more about asking the right questions. “A More Beautiful Question” is about figuring out how to ask and answer the questions that can lead to new opportunities and growth.” 

The NCMM recently caught up with expert questioner Warren Berger in order to ask him a few questions.

How do you define what makes a question “beautiful” or valuable?

Berger: I define a “beautiful question” as being a big, ambitious question that is also actionable and that has the potential to bring about change, the potential to shift the way people think about a problem or to change their behavior. Each of these elements is important. 

An ambitious question might be, “Can we re-think the way we’ve been doing this policy or this procedure we’ve done for years? Is there a way we might do it differently?” The actionable part is really important too. A beautiful question is designed to be worked on. You don’t need to have the answer right away or even for quite a while, but getting there involves work. Then the third part is the potential to bring about change: if you come up with an answer, it’s going to change the way your business operates or it’s going to change the way people behave. To me, those are the 3 elements of a beautiful question. 

What is the value better questioning can offer for middle market leaders?

Berger: In the world we’re in right now, change is a constant because of technology, globalization, and other trends, so you have to be more adaptable than you would have been 20, 30 years ago. That’s where questioning becomes important for managers of all types of businesses. That habit will enable them to keep stepping back and looking at what they’re doing and asking, “Are we really doing the right thing? Does this still make sense now? It might have made sense five years ago, but does it make sense now? If it doesn’t, what could we do differently and how would we start to go about that?” 

That kind of questioning habit is going to make you a better manager. Not only that, you’ll want to model that behavior for the people who work for you -- and then you can build a really curious, smart operation.

Why has questioning been so undervalued in business?

Berger: It starts when we’re in school, and we get rewarded for getting the answers right on a test or when you raise your hand. That continues in business. You get promoted based on the solutions you come up with or the ideas you come up with. There’s a sense that all the value lies in the answers. 

I agree with that. The only thing I’m saying is that you need to be asking better questions. What people sometimes don’t realize is that answers don’t come out of the blue. They only come if you’ve been asking the right questions and working on them over a period of time. But you must start with the right questions. 

How can great questions unlock the value of data?

Berger: For data to become valuable, we have to know how to interpret it. We have to know what to do with it, and how to act upon it. When we ask questions about data, it’s going to help us make sense of it and start to organize it and start to figure out, “which data is important and relevant, and which is not?” 

How can questions drive innovation?

Berger: Questioning is so important in the whole innovation process. The innovative process begins with fundamental questioning of the status quo. A lot of people aren’t willing to do that. As you start to come up with ideas for a possible innovation, you use questioning to refine the idea. At every stage of the innovative process, you’re using questioning to guide you and keep you moving forward.

Your book suggests a three-sequence way of questioning, which is “why?, what if?, and how?” What’s the value of following that three-step sequence?

Berger: Each of those three types of questions does something different, and they form a nice relationship with each other. I don’t want to suggest that it’s an automatic foolproof formula for innovation. It’s simply a framework. 

When you ask “why?”, you’re trying to understand something: “Why does this problem exist? Why are we doing things the way we’re doing them?” It’s basically an understanding question. “What if” is an imagination question. You understand the problem and now you’re saying, “What if we try this or what if we came at the problem by doing X, Y or Z?” You’re moving now from understanding in the “why” stage to imagination in the “what if” stage. “How” is really about getting things done. They’re very practical questions. “How much is it going to cost, how are we going to do it, how will we take the first steps.” It’s an interesting, 3-step cycle that moves from understanding to imagining to doing.

Why should middle market companies be asking the same kind of foundational question as a startup is asking?

Berger: The great thing that startups have going for them is that they’re not bound by rules and procedures. They’re able to create things from scratch because they’re new, and they’re able to be very adaptive, flexible, and creative. What happens as a company becomes established, they naturally start to develop those rules and processes, and then they solidify those into handbooks and rules and spread them throughout the company. 

You need that guidance and those rules, but the problem is that they can lock you into certain behaviors. Middle market companies need to occasionally step away from their own rules and systems and be able to apply fresh thinking, that beginners’ perspective an entrepreneurial company has. It’s going to help them be more nimble and open to new ideas, and it’s going to help them compete. You’re competing with startups anyway, in almost every field. You have to be as fast and creative as they are, so you should continually question your assumptions.

Listen to "Warren Berger Interview" on Spreaker.