Friday, October 16, 2009

What's the Question?

I spent years working in the research group at Bell Laboratories. It was an amazing job. We had a $350M budget, about 300 scientists, no responsibilities for delivering revenue (or in some cases even results) and the freedom to pursue almost anything we could think of.

I came to learn that the thing that distinguishes the great research scientists from the not-so-great research scientists has nothing to with their degrees and pedigrees, nothing to do with their experience or craft, and nothing to do with their knowledge of the subject matter. It's simply this: the great research scientists know how to ask the most useful question.

Oftentimes, the questions posed by the great scientists seem outlandish or irrelevant to the mainstream. Yet, it's with these questions that we see the breakthroughs.

Einstein posed the question, "Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy content?"

He realized that the answer was, "Yes, it does depend on its energy content!"

And you get to E = MC2.

Getting Ahead of Heart Attacks
After my friend Jonathan and others developed a chip that could detect and electrically block epileptic seizures, it occurred to them that they could probably do something similar for heart attacks. When they concluded that they couldn't actually block the attack, they asked themselves, "Even if we can't do that, what can we do?"

This got them on the train of thought that led them to an implantable device that can detect heart attacks six to eight hours before they occur. The device communicates with a little pager that instructs you to either call your doctor (if the issue isn't an emergency) or call 911 (if it is). When you get to the hospital, rather than running all sorts of tests, the doctor simply downloads information collected by the device and then treats you, all before the heart attack occurs.

If Jonathan and his crew had stuck with the question of how to create a device that blocks heart attacks, they would still be at the drawing board. Instead, by re-framing the question, they have a device that is in clinical trials and has already saved peoples' lives.

Stuck in the Wrong Question
What I've noticed lately is that, in general, people seem to be terrible at picking questions.

For example, as I drove from New Jersey back to the Berkshires yesterday, I listened to a "conservative" radio talk show where the host was blasting liberals and democrats for wanting public this and public that. He was a strong advocate for keeping things in the private sector. This was in stark contrast to the opinions that I hear voiced here in the Berkshires.

The question of whether things like health care, banking, etc should be public or private has taken on almost religious proportions, and it's the wrong question! The question is one of how to to deliver services in the most cost effective manner with the highest quality.

I then heard a an interview with a man in a nearby town who was trying to figure out how to get federal funding for a wind-powered electricity generator. Sounds good on the surface, but he lives in an area where there's not enough wind to power the thing effectively. So, what's the question?

Not long ago, I was working with an organization that was sponsoring a European lecture series. In the middle of an executive meeting, just days prior to the series, someone burst into the room telling us that much of the material that was required for the lectures had not been sent to Europe. Several people exclaimed, "How could this have happened?"

Of course, the best question would have been, "What are we going to do about it?"

Becoming a Better Questioner
There are several things that to me seem common to skilled questioners.

Skilled questioners seem to start with what they want, and then look at what they have.
Unskilled questioners tend to look at what they have and then consider what they can get.

Skilled questioners start with the assumption that there must be an answer.
Unskilled questioners start with the assumption that there are many questions for which there are no answers.

Skilled questioners constantly reconsider and re-frame questions.
Unskilled questioners tend to harp on exactly the same question over and over and over.

Skilled questioners always ask, "Hmmm..., is that really the question?"
Unskilled questioners just jump into the fray.

So What's Your QQ (Questioner Quotient)?
Whether you're already a great questioner or not, improving your skill of asking the most useful question possible in any situation can absolutely change your life.

Look at the questions you ask yourself on a daily basis and consider the alternatives. It might mean re-framing a question such as How should I get to work? into How might I work from home?

Which of these diets should I pursue? might become What's the perfect mix of foods for me?

Should I go to this university or that? might become Which professor do I really want to work with?

Whatever your questions are, whether they're the big life questions of the mundane daily questions, I invite you to revisit them and consider, "Is that really the question?"

Have an inquisitive Friday!


  1. Excellent point, Teflon.

    I'm reminded of the famous Pablo Picasso quote: "Computers are useless. They can only give answers".

  2. I'm reminded of the most awesome chapter, avail in audio, in one of Anthony Robbins books, about Questions being the Answer. If one wants better answers ask better questions in other words bw

  3. When I don't get good answers, I can usually relate it to not being clear about my wants...

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I was thinking about this more today and it occurred to me that my guidelines for becoming a better questions are a second best.

    I still like them, but it occurred to me that children tend to be the best questioners. I think it's because they ask the most obvious questions, innocently and purely out of curiosity. They operate without assumption or agenda.

    In the end, I think that this may be the best formula for asking good questions.

  5. Ohhh, this when I apply the sigma 3!!!
    I strongly agree and disagree.

    Children are great at posing qustions (and at giving answers), but no agenda? if an agenda is a list of wants, then I believe that children children absolutely have agendas. They can be pretty clear about their wants, which is an applaud to your list: knowing your wants.

    I think that what makes children great at posing questions is that they do not have any judgments about their wants - so they do not need to hide their agendas.
    AND they seems to believe that wanting is enough - so they do not need to make complicated reasons about why they want something.

    SO the agenda is not filled with timeconsuming irrelevant stuff.

    Maybe you could say that children can skip the second to last point (reframing the question), since they are pretty skilled in getting the question right the first time (as you said: posing the obvious question).

  6. Hey Joy, You're right! It's not so much the absence of agenda as it is the clarity of agenda, no hidden agenda.

    I like where this is going. There are questions that are purely inquisitive and questions that are requests (ones with agenda). What makes a child's question so cool is that the request question is never masquerading as inquisitive question.

    Thank you for driving to clarity.

  7. I really liked your insight there, Joy...big difference between agendas and hidden agendas.


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