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Innovating Through Questions

June 04, 2017


Asking  for directions is something a lot of people (read men) avoid doing, yet it is something that can save them (read men) a lot of time. This weekend I found myself in a place I have never been to before, a place I have only been seeing on television or when I pass it while on the way to another destination, since this place (an institution actually) is strategically located on one of the busiest highways of the town I was in. From the outside, it is hard to tell that this institution is as big as I was to find out later on and so when I got inside and started looking for the specific offices I needed to visit, I realized very quickly I would  either need to get a map of the entire institution, or every time I got to a junction I'd have to ask someone for directions. I opted to ask.

3 hours, 4km and 9347 steps later, I was ready to leave that massive institution with lots of lessons learned, the major one being, asking questions or asking for directions does not make you foolish; it actually saves you lots of time and frustrations.

Unfortunately many people operate under this school of thought that "ask no questions, hear no lies". Well, you can choose to live your life that way but you stand a high risk of losing out on a lot of things. The Chinese have this interesting  proverb about asking questions that says, “He who asks a question is a fool  for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool  forever”. And they are right! We also have a similar saying in Kiswahili that says, "kuuliza sio ujinga", which means asking questions does not make you a fool. If I can read between the lines, I guess what they didn't say is that making mistakes because you chose not to ask is what makes you a fool.

Think about this; what’s the one thing that the world’s leading innovators share with children? They both learn through asking questions. It’s the simplest and most effective way of learning. Yet somehow we have forgotten this lesson as we get older. We just don’t value questioning as much as we should. The habit of asking questions is not to mean that one is stupid. If this were the case, then some of the greatest innovators would never have made it to the hall of fame.

Not asking good or even enough questions has a direct impact on the quality of choices you make. Developing a habit of asking questions enables you to gain deep insight, develop more innovative solutions and to arrive at better decision-making. Brilliant thinkers and scientists never stop asking questions. “Asking questions is the single most important habit for innovative thinkers", says Paul Sloane, the UK’s top leadership speaker on innovation.

People we read about in history who changed the world asked questions. For instance;

  1. Newton: “Why does an apple fall from a tree but, why does the moon not fall into the Earth?”
  2. Darwin: “Why do the Galapagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?”
  3. Einstein: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?”

I can guarantee you that everything we see today originated from a question. I'm trying to imagine the kind of questions the person(s) who came up with condoms had to ask before he finally settled for that product. Actually, I wonder what really led him (I am convinced it must have been a man) to come up with such a product; could it be that;

  1. ​He had fathered too many children and was being slapped with child support law suits left right and centre? 
  2. Could it be that his wife  had fifteen children and since he couldn't consider vasectomy he opted for another option to prevent the sixteen (assuming they were all his)?

I honestly don't know what prompted him to come up with condoms, and I haven't researched on this, forgive me, but these are just hypothetical questions going on in my (graphic) mind right now.

Besides for innovation purposes why else is it important to ask questions?

Because it is one way of learning. When you ask questions, the right questions, you definitely start a chain of events that gives you a high chance of ensuring you get the right answers. Why do I say you start a chain of events? Because it does not mean that because you asked the right questions you will get the right answers. Sometimes you might be looking for your answers in the wrong places but if you keep seeking for those answers, you will eventually get the right ones from the right sources. It is important to make sure you ask the right questions at all times, even when you are not necessarily asking a person the question but instead you are researching online. Unless you ask the right questions, you will get the wrong answers. The more you ask questions, the more you learn to ask the right questions to the right people.

If you are to ever make a difference in your life, there is no way you will do so without asking questions.

  1. How did I get to where I am now?
  2. How do I get out of here now to get to where I want to be?
  3. What did I do wrong to find myself in this situation, and what can I do now to avoid finding myself in a similar situation in future?
  4. How do I lose all this weight I have added in the last three months?
  5. How do I learn Estonian?
  6. What gave me the success I am experiencing today?

These are examples of questions progressive people ask themselves and in so doing, they create room for answers that will catapult them to levels that take them out of where they are to where they want to be.

Asking questions shortens your journey, be it a physical journey or otherwise. Asking questions leads one to discover new things they hadn't even planned. Asking questions broadens your mind and opens avenues for you to gain more knowledge/information. Asking questions does not mean you are dumb. As a matter of fact asking the right questions can make you look very knowledgeable and if you are in the right environment, it can actually open doors for you. Of course not all the  times your questions will be received with vigor and joy. Sometimes you will face some resistance but that should not stop you from asking questions. In the words of Richard Eyre, "Don't ever be afraid to ask any question."

If you want to be the next big innovator, you must ask questions. Questioning is the ability to organize your thinking around what you do not know. Thomas Berger captured this well when he said, "The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge"

Remember, the key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions. Not the right answers.

Don't be afraid to ask questions.

PS: This article was originally published in Tanzania's Guardian On Sunday on the 4th June, 2017, under my weekly column "Thoughts in Words".




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