by Hal Gregersen, author of “Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life“
Creative breakthroughs come about when courageous entrepreneurs dare to reframe the most puzzling challenges by asking different questions. By reframing questions, they dissolve barriers to thinking, like limiting prior assumptions and they channel creative energy down more productive pathways. People who may have felt stuck, suddenly see new possibilities and are inspired to pursue them.
Developing this inquisitive mindset requires an environment where questions will thrive because unique conditions prevail. After observing and interviewing over 200 creative entrepreneurs and leaders, I’ve distilled their daily habits into three productive paths where catalytic questions can come to light.
First, you can consciously seek out more diverse settings – or people – where new, reframed questions can emerge. On a personal level, a coaching or therapy session, a sabbatical, or even a camping trip, can be a forcing function—a carved-out safe space for questioning that does not resemble the normal conditions in which one operates. For example, my friend Maureen Chiquet, who was president of Gap and Banana Republic before becoming CEO of the luxury goods company Chanel, tells the story of setting aside her silk-lined tweed jackets for a weekend at a horse ranch, where a horse whisperer introduced her to “equine life coaching.” To her surprise, the experience was deeply affecting. It caused her to question her work as a leader in important ways — which led her to engage other senior leaders in a multiyear leadership journey that included, among other exercises, taking them to visit the same ranch.
Second, you can create those conditions in pockets around you — and not only for yourself but for others as well. Rod Drury, who founded one of the world’s fastest-growing software-as-a-service companies, New Zealand–based Xero, creates that kind of space virtually for his colleagues with enterprise social media tools. He doesn’t limit himself to reviewing what others post; he also shares his strategic thinking and snippets of market intelligence and encourages anyone in the organization — “even someone who’s just joined the business ten minutes ago” — to ask questions, offer perspectives, or call out assumptions that no longer track with reality.
Third, in your daily comings and goings where circumstances might seem unchangeable, you can pack along the condition of assuming greater wrongness (and its analog, shedding more certitude) from a purely personal perspective. This is akin to the idea of mindfulness, a state of active awareness of and attention to what is happening in the moment. If you can, by sheer dint of will, refuse to capitulate to the conditions that are suppressing your imagination and voice, you can make a questioning space for yourself. In places where others are at best tentatively raising a hand in a hunched-shoulder posture, barely daring to ask what is on their minds, you can stand straight with a beginner’s mindset and give voice to the query. And you can grant an audience to the tentative, contrarian questions trying to assert themselves around you, and inside your own head. You can focus on changing your own attitudes, activities, and behaviors. More specifically, as an attitude change, you can stop assuming your first instincts and default answers are right and instead assume that you are probably wrong. As an activity change, you can spring yourself from your usual haunts and start venturing into places that challenge you — out of your comfort zone. As a behavior change, you can quiet your impulse to assert a position and spend more time in receiving mode as opposed to transmitting.
Putting yourself in these kinds of conditions opens up the possibility of asking the right questions and in turn, coming up with the most innovative solutions. And remember, wherever questions flourish, it is because someone has created the space for them to do so. You may not be able to will a creative breakthrough with the snap of your fingers, but you can create the conditions where breakthrough questions are more likely to surface. Could a change in your daily routines create the question that unlock the answer to your most vexing problem?
Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at MIT Sloan School of Management. A Thinkers50 globally ranked management thinker, he has authored or coauthored ten books, translated into fifteen languages, including his most recent, “Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life“. Gregersen is also the founder of the 4-24 Project, an initiative dedicated to rekindling the provocative power of asking the right questions in adults so they can pass this crucial creativity skill onto the next generation.