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No Stupid Questions? Avoid These 2 Exceptions

How to replace innovation-squelching vanity questions with some that Socrates would be proud of.
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Since you were old enough to talk, you've been asking questions. Don't believe me? Ask your parents. ("Are we there yet? Are we there yet?")

But just because questioning the world around us comes nearly as naturally as breathing, doesn't make us good at it. At least not when we grow into adult entrepreneurs.

According to Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation, a new book from retired HP executive Phil McKinney excerpted recently on Knowledge@Wharton, asking questions is both an essential skill in business and one leaders aren't always very good at. "The natural curiosity of kids gets lost over time. As adults we use our education and past experiences to solve the problems we face rather than relying on questions. It's these historical assumptions of what works that prevents organizations from generating new ideas," he writes.

Which isn't to say that we stop asking questions all together. We just stop asking good ones. So what's a bad question according to McKinney? Those that shut-down listeners or are disguised demands for affirmation. He calls these "tag questions." Are you guilty of this practice?

Tag questions are statements that appear to be questions, but don't allow for any kind of answer except for agreement. A tag question is really a declarative statement turned into a question, and used to get validation for the speaker's "answer." Family members, authority figures, or executives who want to appear to care about the opinion of another person, but really want their instructions carried out without discussion, often favor tag questions. A tag question can show that the speaker is either overly confident of his or her beliefs, or so insecure that he has to bully others into agreeing with him. Either way, his phrasing of the question shows that he is not willing to consider an alternative point of view....

That presentation was fantastic, wasn't it?

The new brochure will be based on the last version, won't it?

Tag questions can be incredibly damaging both to an individual and to an organization because they shut down the creative process.

Besides tag questions, which are actively destructive, there are also factual questions like 'Do you want milk in your coffee?' which McKinney characterizes are neutral. But these sort of functional, open and shut questions aren't what you're really after. What you want, McKinney, writes are "investigative" questions and to generate more of them you need to channel Socrates, he writes:

So how do you generate some good investigative questions? One of my starting points is the Socratic Method. Socratic questions are, in their simplest definition, questions that challenge you to justify your beliefs about a subject, often over a series of questions, rather than responding with an answer that you've been taught is "correct." A well-phrased series of Socratic questions challenges you to think about why you believe your "answer" to be correct, and to supply some sort of evidence to back up your beliefs....

Ultimately Socrates' goal was to help the student unveil his own thoughts and his own beliefs, and see them clearly for the first time. It was only by finally articulating one's own thoughts and bringing them into "open air," that the student could fully understand the depths of his own knowledge.

Socrates believed that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step toward knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance. It's the same in the idea-generation process; the first step to freeing yourself to find innovations is to recognize that the knowledge you currently have is insufficient, and that you need to go out and discover new information that will lead to new products or concepts.

Want more details on how to put this advice into practice? Check out the book.

Pay attention for a day—how many "tag" questions do you ask?

Last updated: Apr 16, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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