In the first article on this series about innovation, I presented a simple definition for innovation from author Stephen Di Biase and the serious consequences that can result when we fail to ask the right questions at the right time, including the sinking of the Titanic and the Challenger space shuttle explosion. As you can see, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to effective inquiry, so this article dives deeper into the art of asking questions.

Learning Innovation Part II: The Importance of Questions

One of the surest ways to make sure you’re always asking great questions is to cultivate your curiosity. As Albert Einstein put it, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” Besides being a fair warning about the dangers inherent to “formal education,” it also points out that many of us need to actively recover the natural curiosity that was present when we were children. Dr. Di Biase points out that babies as young as two months old, when presented with two different patterns, show a distinct preference for the one that is unfamiliar to them. It’s a simple testament to natural curiosity.

I recommend you think about curiosity as if it were a muscle. Unless you actively give that muscle a regular workout, it’s going to atrophy and become useless. One way to do this is to remain alert when questions pop into your head, which they inevitably do. Instead of just dismissing those questions as a distraction, pursue answers to them.

Another way to keep curiosity active is to let your imagination “run wild” on a regular basis. Einstein also said this: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Indulge your imagination more frequently than you otherwise might. As it turns out, people with healthy, active imaginations are happier, more alert, and better able to cope with the man challenges life throws our way. Telling stories and making art are great ways to keep both your imagination and your curiosity alive and kicking.

But let me get back to effective inquiry through the art of asking great questions. It’s useful to understand what so often gets in the way of asking questions. Dr. Di Biase summarizes these barriers as follows:

Self-protection. In a business environment where people are all about answers, there can be immense pressure to not ask questions. After all, who wants to look like they don’t know something? Our desire to avoid looking “ignorant” or “dumb” can be a powerful disincentive to asking questions. In corporations, it can take a serious effort at organizational cultural change to foster an environment where asking questions is both valued and actively rewarded.

The need for speed. In today’s incredibly fast-paced and hectic business world, we often feel we simply don’t have the time to indulge in asking questions and exploring all the avenues down which they lead. As a result, companies far too often rush to a decision that can turn out to be premature, and even lead to disastrous consequences. Asking questions slows things down in a good way that increases the quality of decisions made and actions taken.

Lack of skill. Finally, the third significant barrier to asking questions is the plain fact that many of us lack the skills needed to engage in effective inquiry. As previously mentioned, a big share of the responsibility of this sad situation lies at the feet of formal education, which too often values answers over and above good questions.

It’s easy to see why we fail to ask the kinds of questions of questions that could lead to innovation and better decisions. We fail to realize the serious consequences that can come about by not asking questions, we don’t have the time to ask them, we don’t want to look stupid, and we lack the skills, curiosity, and imagination needed to ask questions. In the next article in this series on innovation, I’ll get into the specifics of how to go about asking great questions.