How do leading business innovators capitalize on ideas before anyone else? How do the likes of Jeff Bezos, Leila Janah, Bill Gates, or Reid Hoffman identify and build on ideas that appear to come out of nowhere?
It's not just their network of experts or the long list of resources available to them. No, what each of the top performers use more often than any other resource is their ability to simply ask better questions.
Steve Jobs helped Apple take the standard smart phone and turn it into a historic icon with the iPhone, simply by asking what a keyboard-less phone would look like. Jeff Bezos convinced investors that a retail business without a storefront was the way of the future by asking how automation could move products. And Mark Zuckerberg turned a college forum into one of the world's most used websites by asking what would connect people in the modern age.
If you want to get ahead and have truly valuable ideas--at any scale--you have to learn how to ask better questions.
Why questions? Questions do what most other things can't: They open a gap in our knowledge.
Harvard Business School professor, author, and business consultant Clayton Christensen elegantly described the value of questions by saying:
"Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven't asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question--you have to want to know--in order to open up the space for the answer to fit."
Sure, anyone can ask questions and open his or her mind to new ideas, but to ask questions that lead to the same impact as the iPhone, Amazon, or Facebook has had, you have to ask better questions. What makes some questions better than others?
In his book Beyond the Obvious, Phil McKinney identifies two types of questions we typically ask: factual and inquisitive. Factual questions are primarily used for collecting information: What were the results of the test? How many sales did you make last week? Do you want coffee with or without cream? On the other hand, inquisitive questions don't have straightforward answers. An inquisitive question's goal is to diverge how you think, to explore mental pathways you might not be considering.
To ask truly inquisitive questions requires the ability to cover a lot of ground, mentally anyway. If you want to ask better questions, consider this simple formula: W + S. That's it.
In the formula, W represents any of the traditional "5 W's," which are: who, what, where, when, why (and how). The other character, S, represents any of our five senses: sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste.
To ask better questions, you merely need to combine any of the 5 W's with the five senses in an inquisitive way. Doing so prompts thinking you might otherwise not consider, by presenting divergent and unique questions.
For example: Take who from the 5 W's and mix it with the sense of sight to generate a question relevant to your work: Who will see this last? Who has to see it first? Who will never see it? Who matters most?
You can then add a multiplier to the question format in order to explore even further: asking not only who, but why, with the sense of sound, for example. Who will want to know why it sounds this way when you drop it on the ground? Who will not care why this doesn't make any sound? Who will decide why this generates the sounds it does?
Taking a few minutes to write out numerous questions using this formula is a rapid way to think at the same caliber as some of the leading thinkers in business and innovation. The more questions you can get out, and the more variation to the questions you ask, the more likely you are to stumble on novel and valuable insights.
The formula works because it goes a level beyond what you've probably been trained to ask: What will make more money? Where am I losing money? What's broken? These questions are important for any role, but they're vastly more limited in what they can uncover than a question combining senses with the 5 W's.
Try it yourself. Use any combination to generate 20 questions--adding an additional W or sense whenever you feel stuck--and see what insights come to you as a result.