A Search for Questions: Re-learning the importance of asking questions

I don’t have to tell you that today’s marketing and advertising world is incredibly complex. And the pressure to perform and deliver positive results has never been higher. So it’s no surprise that everyone is looking for answers, answers, answers to their marketing problems. But to find those answers, it’s never been more important to ask good questions.

American Poet Nancy Willard said, “sometimes questions are more important than answers.” I’ll go further – just as the most important part of communication is listening, the most important parts of any answer are questions.  The word question comes from the Latin word quaerere, which means to seek – and isn’t that we all need to be doing?

Asking questions engages people and provokes thought. It stimulates ideas, rules out incorrect or outdated assumptions and gets you further towards understanding and ideation.  If you keep asking questions, you can keep finding better and better answers. For reference, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said, ‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’

We see this trait in kids. They are constantly asking questions to help them make sense of the world and develop their own opinions and ideas. Who hasn’t heard “why is the sky blue?”, “why can’t I pull the dog’s fur?”, “why do I have to go to bed now?” In fact, most of the articles and books on questions are about children and learning in childhood. Well here’s a question – why do we seem to think that asking questions stops being important in adulthood?

There are several reasons that people stop asking questions as adults.

They’re afraid: People don’t ask questions because they’re afraid they will look stupid, underprepared, inattentive. Or their questions will add uncertainty to the group. (This must be the reason most men refuse to ask for directions, even when they’re hopelessly lost.)

They’re lazy: It takes effort to ask questions. You have to be paying attention, be interested in digging deeper, and assume some responsibility for responding to answers. You have to be passionate enough to care about the information and the learning you might get from the question. For some, this requires way too much effort.

They’re dispassionate: These folks are happy with any answer. They’d prefer to check the box, get ‘er done, and move on, than actually aspire to a job well done, to results that shatter expectations, or to work that has never been done before.

They’re insecure: If you’re afraid of “shades of gray”, and prefer to cling to assumptions you already have, then you won’t want to ask questions. Questions can force re-assessment of your beliefs and leave you unsure of what you “know” and don’t know (see my earlier post about “remaining stupid”, and referencing “knowers” vs. “learners”).

Great leaders know, and are comfortable with the fact, they don’t have all the answers They know to never stop asking questions of themselves, their teams, their assumptions, and their output. Questions help leaders not only to engage and participate, but also help probe the thought processes of others, vs. just making assumptions about them based on actions.

Leaders and managers should spend more time thinking about, caring about and teaching good questioning skills to everyone. And questions should be central to all phases of project development – before, during and after. Before, to ensure there’s enough clarity and understanding of the problem you’re solving. What really is the problem? Who, what, where, when, how, why? Agree to objectives and goals before you even start to seek answers. But be willing to evolve as you learn. Continue to ask questions during the project development. Are we building a program to answer our core problem? Is this doing what we want it to? Should we question our assumptions? What else can/should we do? And after, continue to question. What did we learn? What did we do right and should carry to future projects? What went wrong and why? How do we try to avoid this in the future?

It’s almost as if you should maintain a form neoteny – an adult retention of a childlike trait – and continue to ask questions as a way to understand the world. As Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning”.


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