The Beautiful Question

The Beautiful Question


“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” – e. e. cummings

If you’ve ever watched the improv comedy show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” you’ve probably seen the game called “Questions Only” in which two comics act out a scene using, well, only questions. The first comic to respond with a declarative statement is buzzed out of the game.

  • Comic 1: Hey, what’s good on the menu here?
  • Comic 2: Who wants to know?
  • Comic 1: Why do you ask?
  • Comic 2: Are you trying to be difficult?
  • Comic 1: You gotta problem with that?
  • Comic 2: Wanna step outside?
  • Comic 1: You and what army?
  • Comic 2: Let’s go, pal… Oops! [BUZZZZ]

It’s hilarious, because it’s ridiculous.

Or maybe it’s brilliant.

Good questions are not just the sparks that light a fire; they are the fuel that keeps it burning. It’s no accident that the word itself implies a “quest” rather than a destination. Assertions and declarations, like the Improv sketch buzzer, tend to serve as a conversational cul-de-sac. But questions lure a dialogue deeper, and in the direction of possibilities waiting to be sought out. And every bit as important, questions are rooted in the kind of humility, empathy, and curiosity so often found in the leaders that we all want to follow.

So, as facilitators seeking to lead a creative group dialogue, or as leaders who want to inspire our followers, asking good questions is not just important, it is of the essence.

But, what makes a good question? Warren Berger is a design thinking and innovation expert who has devoted his life to studying the power of inquiry in driving innovation. In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Berger describes the beautiful question as one that will serve as a catalyst to bring about change – a question that is both ambitious and actionable, and which begins to shift the way we perceive or think about something. They often begin with “Why?” or “What if?

For example:

  • The modern-day Olympic Games were inspired by the question, “What if countries competed on the playing field instead of the battlefield?”
  • The idea for the Polaroid camera was sparked by a two-part question: “Why do we have to wait for the pictures, and what if we put the darkroom inside the camera?”
  • When faced with a disruption of the memory markets in the mid-1980’s, Intel’s CEO and President chose to disinvest in their core memory products in favor of the microprocessors when they famously asked, “What if we were kicked out of the company? What would the new CEO do?”

Berger suggests a set of 7 fundamental “beautiful questions” all leaders should be asking. I think they are a great place for us to begin in our quest for what we should be asking the teams we lead. They are deep and abiding questions that don’t necessarily have static answers, but which will lead us in the direction of a better future.

As a professional facilitator, I spend most of my time guiding group discussions in the direction of a breakthrough. When you’re leading a group, don’t you sometimes (often? usually?) feel like you know the answer and just want to blurt it out? Of course you do. But, there are two problems with that. For one, you may very well be wrong. But, even if you’re right, if the group comes up with the answer on their own, it BELONGS to them. Their commitment to and passion for the solution will be exponentially stronger and, therefore, they will bring it to life without you having to push it up the hill.

All the more reason to ask and not tell.

So, let me leave YOU with some questions:

  • When and where have you been telling when you should be asking?
  • What might your meetings, your team, your family look like if you started giving less advice and started asking more thoughtful questions?
  • What is the “what if” that is hiding in the biggest challenges you’ve been facing?

And, more to the point, what is your beautiful question?