The Art of the ‘Dumb’ question
By Think Jar Collective member Jim Force, PhD.
If creativity originates with a question, then it is the art of asking dumb questions that leads to enhanced creativity.
In today’s world, the old ways of doing business no longer produce the results nor provide the value they once did. We are constantly faced with having to find new and better ways of operating. Consequently, one of the top challenges we face as leaders is that of “enhancing creativity” within ourselves and within others. In taking on this challenge we must first comprehend the intimacy of the relationship between creativity and thinking. Our ability to be creative depends upon our capacity to think which in turn depends upon our ability to question not only our practices but also our beliefs and assumptions. We must learn to question the limits of our thinking. It is through this manner of questioning that we are able to rethink our thinking. Thus, the quality of our questions determines the quality of our creativity.
To enhance creativity, we must develop and maintain an attitude of creative questioning. We must become competent in the art of “asking dumb questions,” the first of which might be: “What is a dumb question?” While this question may sound naive, after all everyone knows what a dumb question is, the answer to this dumb question, like all answers to dumb questions, is not as straight forward as we might imagine.
Dumb questions, the kind children ask but most adults know better than to ask, are born out of a desire to understand, out of curiosity not expectation. They stem from our imagination and are designed to engage us in thought. Dumb questions are simple questions that probe the obvious, and simultaneously challenge and direct our thinking.
Dumb questions are not accusatory or argumentative statements in disguise. Nor are they formulated with preconceived answers in mind. Rather, they are probing yet open. Used effectively, dumb questions lead to a deeper sense of reality, truth or purpose. They expand our capacity to see more clearly and inspire us to explore possibilities we would otherwise ignore. Above all they are interesting enough to encourage finding an answer.
While personality and leadership styles play an important role in our creative questioning style, our capacity to ask creative questions is neither a natural talent nor an in-born trait. It is a learned competency based on motivation, know-how and experience. Creative questioning is not an easy discipline to master. As a practice, it requires us to have a sense of adventure, to take risks, and to push into the unknown. Creative questioning necessitates a willingness to think beyond the limits of our assumptions.
Asking Creative Questions
Because creative questioning is a learned competency, improvement is always possible. The basics of creative questioning are quite simple.
First, get in the habit of carrying a notebook with you at all times. Use this notebook to record your observations, questions, reflections, insights and musings. Second, pay attention to the types of questions you and others ask during meetings, phone calls, or conversations of any kind. Notice the answers each question generates. Become aware of question/answer patterns. Keep in mind that dumb questions are born out of curiosity and as such encourage exploration. If you are not traveling uncharted waters, you aren’t asking dumb questions. Record the best dumb questions. Listen to the questions children ask and the answers they give.
Third, start asking questions of yourself and then of others. Ask simple questions, questions that increase your understanding, that challenge the way you think.
Keep your questions nonjudgmental, open and brief. Observe what happens when questions are judgmental, dead-ended or complex. Ask who, what, where, when, how, and why questions. Ask “what if” or compare and contrast questions. Pose option type questions. Be sure to vary the way in which you ask questions. Notice the type of questions you ask and the types you don’t. Notice the answers you get and where they take you. Record your observations in your notebook.
I suggest using the following creative questioning practice when you are facing a difficult decision, struggling with a challenging problem, engaging in a complex task, or are curious about a topic. Or when you are absolutely sure that you have the answer you’re looking for. At the top of a blank page in your notebook, jot down a key word or a short statement that captures the essence of the decision, problem, task, or topic under consideration. Next write out a list of one hundred questions that come to mind as you think about your topic. Write quickly, ignoring spelling, grammar and repeated questions. Piggyback questions onto each other. Ask questions of your questions. Write all one hundred questions without interruption. Be aware of the temptation during this process to start recording responses to your questions. Avoid this temptation and record questions only. There will be time later for exploring solutions. Generally speaking it is in the latter half of your list that you will uncover the most interesting and provocative questions, that is, questions which provide unexpected insights and new perspectives.
Once you have finished your list, put it aside for awhile and pay attention to the ideas that percolate to the surface of your consciousness.
Remember, the purpose of this practice is to prime your creative pump, to bring forth hereto unexamined solutions and insights. As new ideas and questions come to mind record them in your notebook. Within the next two to twenty-four hours review your list. Select those questions which are most interesting to you. Use them as a focal point for further exploration of your topic. Contemplate them. Discuss them. Use them as starting points for repeating this exercise from new perspectives. Use them as the basis for researching the literature. Keep track of your insights and learnings as well as any new questions which emerge.
In the process of practicing creative questioning, it is quite natural to develop the habit of asking the same kinds of questions over and over. To avoid this problem and to build your repertoire of question types do the hundred question exercise with a partner. Begin as usual with a topic statement and a listing of questions. Once you have written ten questions, switch lists with your partner. Read your partner’s list and add ten more questions of your own on their list. Exchange lists and read the questions your partner added to your list. Add ten more questions to this list. Continue exchanging lists until you have a hundred questions on each. Discuss the questions with your partner. This activity can also be done with several people by passing the lists from one person to another rather than back and forth with each other. This is an excellent exercise for collaborative exploration of a topic.
Experiment with the practice of creative questioning; construct variations of your own until you discover what works best for you.
Originally published in the Leadership Compass, Winter/Spring 2000, pp. 28-29