In previous posts, I shared questions that can help overcome fear of failure and others aimed at identifying your creative or entrepreneurial passion. But questioning can also be a great tool when it comes to problem-solving. Whatever challenge you’ve staked out—an entrepreneurial venture, a potential innovation, perhaps a social problem crying out for a fresh approach—asking the right questions, at the right time, can help you begin to tackle that problem and can even guide you toward a solution.
In my research for A More Beautiful Question, I analyzed dozens of innovation stories and found that questioning was not only central to the problem-solving process, but that certain types of questions—in particular Why, What if, and How queries, asked in a progressive sequence—seemed to be especially effective in helping innovators work towards a solution.
Asking Why, What if, and How, in that order, can help one advance through three critical stages of problem-solving. "Why" questions are ideal for coming to grips with an existing challenge or problem—helping us understand why the problem exists, why it hasn’t been solved already, and why it might be worth tackling. "What if" questions can be used to explore fresh ideas for possible improvements or solutions to the problem, from a hypothetical standpoint. When it’s time to act on those ideas, the most effective types of questions are practical, action-oriented ones that focus on "how": how to give form to ideas, how to test and refine them with the goal of transforming possibility into reality.
This cycle of inquiry can be seen in many of the stories of recent innovations by companies such as Netflix, Pandora, Square, Nest, and Airbnb. Or, for a more timeless example, take the invention of the Polaroid instant camera. It all started back in 1943 with a "why" question—though it wasn’t Polaroid founder Edwin Land who asked it. Land had taken a photograph of his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who was impatient to see the results. Her father tried to explain that the film had to be sent off for development, but Jennifer’s insistent question—Why do we have to wait for the picture?—stayed with Land. "I thought, ‘Why not? Why not design a picture that can be developed right away?,’" Land recalled in a speech years later.
After pondering the "why," he began imagining and envisioning "what if" possibilities, chief among them: What if you could somehow have a darkroom inside a camera? But bringing that vision to life in an actual product required that Land and his Polaroid team answer some daunting "how" questions, along the lines of: How might one do chemical processing of film inside the camera? How could you actually create a printed photo within those constraints? How would the photo end up, quickly, in the hands of the user? It took several years of testing and prototyping before the finished product was introduced in 1948—at which time the problem, first identified and articulated by young Jennifer, was solved.
As the Polaroid story shows, a game-changing "why" question can come from anyone, even a child (indeed, "naïve outsiders" are often more inclined than experts to challenge fundamental assumptions). Such questions often arise when someone encounters a less-than-ideal situation and refuses to accept it—choosing, instead, to question it. For example:
- After being socked with exorbitant late fees on his Blockbuster video rentals, Netflix founder Reed Hastings famously wondered, Why should I have to pay these late fees?
- Pandora founder Tim Westergren, a former band musician, observed all the talented-yet-struggling musicians he knew and wondered why it was so difficult for them to connect with the audience they deserved.
- Airbnb cofounders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia couldn’t understand why people coming to San Francisco at certain times of year had so much trouble finding a place to stay—even though there were available bedrooms and sofas in apartments and homes all over town.
- Nest founder Tony Fadell looked at a mundane everyday household product—the thermostat—and wondered, Why hasn’t somebody improved this thing?
- When Square founder Jack Dorsey learned that an artist friend lost a potential sale because he was unable to accept a credit card, Dorsey asked, Why is it that only companies are able to accept credit cards?
Of course, just asking "why," without acting on that question in some way, is not likely to produce change. One of the initial ways innovators begin to act is by imagining alternative possibilities. Pandora’s Westergren, seeking a new and better way to connect musicians and listeners, speculated that if you could break down music to its core elements, you could better match the work of musicians to people’s tastes; Westergren’s big "what if" was, in effect, What if you could map the DNA of music? Airbnb’s founders inquired, What if you could somehow connect the people who need a room with those who have room to spare?
What if possibilities are the seeds of innovation. But in getting from idea to reality, what truly sets apart the most innovative questioners is their ability and determination to give form to ideas. For Polaroid, Pandora, Nest, and Square, the hard work came at the "how" stage—when the questioners had to figure how to squeeze a darkroom inside a camera, create an elaborate music genome system, or find a way to make an old-fashioned thermostat or credit-card reader newly "smart." This is the action stage of inquiry—yet it’s still driven by questions, including: How do I take the first steps in giving form to my idea? How do I begin to test it, to see what works and what doesn’t? And if I find it’s not working, how do I figure out what’s wrong and fix it?
The Why / What if / How sequence of questioning isn’t a formula (creative questioning can and should move in unpredictable directions). But it can be useful to distinguish between the kinds of questions that work best at the wide-open early stages of innovation and those better suited for the later, more focused stage. Being aware of this distinction can provide a way to check on whether your questions are moving forward—whether "why" is leading to "what if" and then to "how." If that’s not happening—if you’re stuck asking expansive "why" or "what if" questions for too long—it may be time to push on to the next stage of inquiry. The point, after all, is not to question endlessly—but to use questions as a means of steadily advancing toward an answer.