On average four-year-olds ask over 300 questions every day. By the time they leave school, those same four-year-olds will be asking less than 10. It’s sad to reflect that it appears more emphasis is placed on reinforcing known theory than creative exploration in our education system, yet, in order to climb, build, fly, swim, cook, write, dance, snorkel or take a selfie, someone, somewhere paused and asked themselves a question.
“The power to question is the basis of all human progress”
In her 2007 research, Michelle Chouinard1suggested that for questions to be a positive force in our cognitive development the following five criteria must be met:
1 The question must be asked.
2 The answers received must match the cognitive development stage of the questioner.
3 The questioner must be motivated to get the information not just attention.
4 The questions must be relevant.
5 The answers must assist understanding.
In real life, outside this specific and fascinating study, there are two additional criteria that I think are vital within a culture that supports questioners, that of:
6 Psychological Safety
7 An expectation that you will get a useful answer.
If these criteria are not fulfilled then the questioner will swiftly reach the position of “what’s the point?” And, when we get to that place we are simultaneously shutting down two of the most unique and exciting elements of being human: curiosity and creativity. Without which we also retreat from any wisdom and understanding that we, in turn, might share.
One of the most powerful questions we can ask is: “What if?” But this most basic of all questions can make the asker feel vulnerable: Will I look silly? Will I lose respect? Will I get fired? However, a great “What if?” question can unlock a wealth of possibilities; it’s a game changer.
“Curiosity is the process of asking questions, genuine questions, that are not leading to an ask for something in return.”
In a bid to make a lighter, more portable personal music device Sony’s then honorary chairman asked the question “What if we drop the record button?” of the weightier Pressman. Complete with light weight headphones The Sony Walkman was born2 and completely changed the way we listen to music.
The UK Design Council Framework has the best practise process for any design project, that of: Define, Discover, Design and Deliver. To achieve anywhere near a desired outcome on a project we also have to be fully awake and in touch with our other core human skills, that of listening, empathy and collaboration. It is a process that challenges opinion, encourages us to seek and understand data and develop innovation. It is also utterly inter-independent: miss out any stage and you are back to a basic instruction. If you are only being given instruction you soon restrict questions and then… what’s the point?
What I find interesting is how I can apply this development framework outside the creative industry. But, it’s tough. Our ability to question, as I touched on earlier, is also dependent on the creation of an environment of trust.
“I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”
As someone who has worked in the creative industries since I was 15, and only had a “proper job” (working for a company) for just two of those years, I have been in a rare position of being able to ask thousands of questions to hundreds of people. My job is to take a problem, create and/or challenge a brief, develop an answer and deliver it to my clients. For me the best project is one where I am also to ask, not just “What if?” but also “Why?”.
In fact “Why?” precedes “What if?”. “Why?” helps us delve deeper in most discussions that could quickly get stuck or lead us down the wrong path with “What if?” Or “How?” And possibly because of this, it can often be the most difficult to answer. As every small child knows “Why” is fundamental to everything.
Asking ourselves “Why?” also encourages us to get ‘upstream’ of an issue we are seeking to understand or a problem we’re looking to resolve. A key strategy of one of advertisings top creative directors, Dave Trott, pulling up and out of a specific situation to discover the ‘why’ behind our behaviour often illuminates entrenched habits, accepted norms and can lead us more swiftly toward answers that unlock new thinking and create profound change.
Back finally to our lack of questioning as we grow older. What’s clear to me is that, very often, questioning is seen as an affront or an attack on power. Be that academic, corporate, political or judiciary. Its supression services only those who don’t want their opinions challenged. A supression that often leaves us frustratedly shaking our heads and wondering, “What’s the point?” But, what if…
What if we all embraced a greater culture of creative questioning? What if more of us asked “Why?”, and how would that be good for the work we all do?
1 Children’s Questions: A Mechanism for Cognitive Development, Michelle M. Chouinard, P. L. Harris and Michael P. Maratsos
2 Sony inventing the Walkman by removing the record button – full story