Raising questions: time to revive a lost art

Most important question in the worldTwo years ago I introduced readers to the web site ChangeThis, which I described as

a web site born of a radical and hopeful idealism: to virally transmit ideas through a culture medium of community, respect, and dialogue.

Recognizing that “the best discussions in science, medicine, business and politics have always been the civil ones”, ChangeThis publishes what it calls manifestos — proposals for change which serve as “a reasoned, rational call to action, supported by logic and facts”. The goal is to provide a forum for “the rational and thoughtful arguments that help people change their minds to a more productive point of view.” In the egalitarian spirit with which ChangeThis was founded, anyone is welcome to submit ideas for a manifesto.

This online experiment in changing minds has thrived, amassing in the past two years a considerable inventory of innovative thinking, and consequently I continue to stop by in search of ideas to invigorate my work.

On a recent visit to the site I was struck by the premise of a newly published manifesto, “Questionating“, by business consultant Corinne Miller. Miller celebrates the power of the question and its role in creativity and fresh thinking:

Questions have been the enablers of innovation for centuries. As Albert Einstein said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science”…

Questions use verbs and words that activate key areas of the brain that, in turn, increase the volume and variety of questions. The more questions, the more creativity and innovation. We like to say that questions open the innovation pipeline.

Despite the role of the question in stimulating discoveries and advancements, Miller observes that people seem to lose the willingness to ask questions as they grow older:

As we age, we disengage… from asking questions. Questions decrease as aging increases. Think about it. Why does the typical 5-year old ask about 65 questions a day, while the typical 40-something asks only about 6 questions a day? Why is it that the older we get, the fewer questions we ask? We’ve found that the most popular answers to this question have been: asking a question makes one look stupid; asking a question is a sign of weakness; and people think they know the answer so they don’t feel the need to ask.

What a sad state that we have created a business culture where asking questions is seen as a weakness. Shouldn’t it be the opposite, where not asking questions is a weakness?

How can we change this?

Indeed. How can we change this? What can any of us do to challenge the notion that asking questions displays weakness or even disrespect? What can we do to make it safe to ask questions of our institutions, of our leaders, of each other? Questions reflect, reveal, resolve; they shine light into the dark corners. Most importantly, questions give us the ability to see the world afresh. As Bertrand Russell once said, “In many affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

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