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Don't Know What to Ask? Secrets of Good Questioners


For many, innovation is a mysterious Holy Grail. To breed novel ideas, business schools encourage students to plunge into research, but after poring over case studies and market analyses, they often end up flailing for the one piece of missing information that will transform their work.

While targeted research is a crucial part of academic and innovation work, many students experience information gridlock because they don’t know what they’re looking for. In essence, they are groping—hoping for the question to be answered before they’ve even come up with it.

In talking with some of the most innovative people in business, including Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, and A.G. Lafley, I’ve found that they have in common the capacity to ask the right questions. While interviewing them, they typically asked me more questions than I asked them. Fueled by continuous curiosity, these leaders define clear objectives, identify potential opportunities, and create more focused plans to reach a goal.

We are born with innate curiosity. That’s reflected in the large number of questions young children ask of those around them. But as they start getting assessed and graded in school, children are quickly conditioned to stop asking unusual questions and instead start parroting textbook answers. By the time students enter high school, questioning has practically been educated out of them.

Fast-forward to business school, where creativity and focus are essential. Most students have to do some work to resuscitate their childlike curiosity. The best way to do that is to start asking questions again—lots of them. This is why I founded the 4-24 Project, which strives to rekindle the practice of asking provocative questions and to inspire a new generation of innovators. The process, which takes just 4 minutes a day, is simple, but the results can be long lasting.

Pick a challenge
Whether it is an assignment from a professor, a specific business issue, or even a personal conflict, identify something you are having trouble with right now. Make sure the challenge not only engages your head, but also your heart. Problems worth solving are driven by deep emotional undercurrents.

Write it down
In a notebook, phone, computer, wherever. The crucial part is that you collect your list of questions in the same place every day. It’s the only way to uncover hidden trends in your questions and capture your progress.

Ask
For 4 minutes every day, ask nothing but questions about your challenge. Why does it exist? How can you solve it? Who is involved? Be imaginative and press yourself to not repeat any questions. Search for surprising questions, especially ones that spark an emotional response (positive or negative). Most importantly, don’t try to answer any of your questions during the 4 minutes. You should just focus on asking everything you can.

Reflect
After the 4 minutes is up, look through your list of questions and pick one or two that are worth answering. It may take a couple minutes or it may take a couple years to find a solution to something significant, but the habitual use of questioning can facilitate your quest for new answers.

Dedicating just 4 minutes to questions each day will not only help you solve problems more creatively; it will also provide a reflective, restorative pause—something so hard to come by in the fast-paced B-school environment.

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Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center. He is founder of the 4-24 Project and co-author of The Innovator's DNA, with Clayton Christensen and Jeff Dyer. Readers can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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