The Power Of Why: Simple Questions That Lead to Success by Amanda Lang
July 19, 2017
The urge to question is natural for small children—just ask any parent. But few of us are aware that it is also one of the most vital tools for success in adulthood. In The Power of Why, Amanda Lang shows how curiosity and the ability to ask the right questions fuels innovation and can drive change not just in business but also in our personal lives.
Net-net: be more curious, channel your inner 4 year old, and start asking "why" and "why not" more often.
What Happens To Curiosity
Virtually all innovation, whether it involves a different way of cooking a turkey or a new kind of online service, starts with a question. A simple one, such as, Is there a way to do this better/cheaper/faster? The difference between a dreamer and an innovator is that the innovator doesn’t stop there—the questions just keep on coming. Sometimes, along the way, you get the answers wrong, but that shouldn’t discourage you. “A big part of innovation is being a critic, and knowing what you should discard,” Gass observes. “It’s crucial to ask, ‘Why won’t this work? What’s wrong with it?’”
The willingness to keep asking is much more important to successful innovation than originality is.
The main difference between innovators and the rest of us is that they ask more and better questions, and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are at first not what they wanted or expected to find.
Curiosity drives progress. Curiosity is directly linked to success—however you measure it. But curiosity doesn’t just have utilitarian value. It doesn’t just help you find solutions and make progress and understand yourself and the rest of the world better. It can actually help you have a better life, one in which you’re engaged, energized, fulfilled and constantly learning. That, ultimately, is the power of why.
Highly curious kids learn more; the more they find out, the more they realize they don’t know and the deeper they dig for information, whether the topic they’re interested in is computers or rap or chemistry. Curiosity is, therefore, strongly correlated with intelligence.
The innovative mindset is: “Question the unquestionable.”
Managers tend to ask how questions, like, How are we going to speed up production? Innovative entrepreneurs, on the other hand, ask Why? and Why not?
Asking basic questions forces people back to the heart of the matter, to re-examine and justify practices and beliefs that have become so ingrained they’re almost invisible. And the payoff that comes from questioning assumptions and rules of thumb can be huge.
There isn’t a story of innovation or progress that doesn’t involve multiple false starts and flubs. Curiosity requires the courage to risk being wrong.
Curiosity drives innovation, which in turn powers productivity.
Curiosity is strongly linked to feelings of well-being and also believing that your life has meaning. Social scientists think this is because curiosity is all about growth and discovery.
Forget what you think you know
Start with the consumer. Go in with a beginners mind to understand the consumer and his/her motivations.
Wipe the slate clean by pressing ctrl+alt+delete on what you think you know. Example, The Project Darwin team members started with just one assumption: men were losing interest in Canadian Tire. They really had no idea why, nor did they care—for the time being. Their mission wasn’t to focus on answers and conclusions but to ask questions that would delve into the psyche of Canadian males of all ages and ethnicities, as though men were a foreign species about whom nothing was known. The process they used:
During initial focus group qualitative research, The Project Darwin team took notes but did not yet try to categorize anything. They didn’t want to leap to conclusions or go into solution mode. They were still trying to “go deeper,” as Feaver put it to the CEO of Canadian Tire, to get to the why of the matter.“We knew it would be premature to draw conclusions from a couple of qualitative stages,” explains Paivin. “They’re just not representative—the samples are too small—but you get certain nuggets. The quantitative stage is really where you test the hypotheses and validate.”
For the workshop, everyone got research packs with about forty pages of reports, statistics and articles; each pack was different, though there was some overlap of material. Employees were instructed to read all the material and, using Post-it Notes, jot down any facts that leaped out at them with a red pen and note their own questions or observations with a green pen. Everyone came to the workshop with a pile of Post-its, so many that once they’d been grouped by subject matter, they covered an entire wall of the cavernous room in Retail City. That many of the observations were contradictory bothered no one; the core team still wasn’t at the stage of trying to look for right answers and pitch out those that seemed wrong. The second pre-workshop task was for each of the fourteen participants to prepare a “consumer immersion mission,” the point being to create empathy with the subjects they were studying—men, in other words—and try to see how the world looked to them. Participants could share what they’d learned in their mission any way they chose—a talk, a PowerPoint presentation, a collage, “interpretive dance, we don’t care,” Paivin joked—and afterward, everyone else wrote down their reactions and observations on yet more Post-its, which were added to the wall. The diversity of the immersion missions was striking—people were interested in very different things, and thought about how to obtain information very differently. Thinking divergently, not trying to converge on the one right answer, was the whole point of Project Darwin.
Questions discovered in quail sparked even more questions which ultimately informed the questions used in quant
When the survey results were tabulated, analyzed and presented to the team, it was “like drinking from a firehose,” Meerkamper recalls. Starting with a seemingly simple, “childish” question—”What does it mean to be a man?”—and continuing to ask it over and over, in a variety of ways, wound up yielding “so much stuff, it was almost paralyzing.”
In the end, five key insights emerged that would shape—and are still shaping—how Canadian Tire markets itself to men. Though they shape advertising, they’re not the core messages of ads. Rather, the Project Darwin findings now inform the way the retailer speaks to and about men. By shelving conventional wisdom—men care most about their status at work; men are selfish creatures who couldn’t care less what women want—they created the possibility of going somewhere completely new.
What drives life satisfaction for men is the relationship they have with their significant other. The opportunity for Canadian Tire, the team realized, was to tap into ways to make men feel good about themselves, to feel like winners who connect with their families and have fun with them.
True insight requires not only curiosity but patience. It takes patience to resist the temptation to start with the assumptions “everyone” knows are “true.” It takes patience not to try to wrap up the question period as quickly as possible and start working on conclusions and seeking consensus. Our natural instinct, particularly when a problem is serious, is to find a fix and try to implement it right away. But the risk is that we never get to the questions that will deliver the real payoff: the big, essential insights that point to a new path forward. Start with beginners mind and keep asking "why" to get to the root of it
Finding solutions starts with asking questions—Why do we do it this way? How can we do it better?
The Status Quo Bias: We’d rather have the security of hanging on to what we have today than the insecurity and uncertainty that come with all new opportunities.
The real goal of all businesses should be to think divergently. To think of the things that haven’t been thought of yet, or to think of better ways to do things that have already been thought of. To question the status quo, that is. And it starts by going back to basics.
Don’t conclude that the problem as it’s first presented, or as you first perceive it, is indeed the actual problem. If you do, and you’ve got it wrong, the solution you produce may also be wrong. The first step to figuring out what your problem is, is to deconstruct it by questioning it.
We miss opportunities to innovate and to make positive changes in our lives when we aren’t willing to question ourselves.
Spotting a problem isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of us unquestioningly accept the status quo, problematic though it may be.
Many people are blind to certain sorts of problems, or at least blind to the possibility of addressing them. We see some problems as just part of the fabric of everyday life,
Easier is sticking with the status quo. Getting to “more interesting” requires stretching past what’s safe and predictable and venturing into the unknown, to learn something new, inevitable and immutable, and miss spotting the potential to do something about them.
Figure out what no one else is doing
Only when the correct problem has been identified is an innovative solution possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as figuring out what no one else is doing. For example, Lululemon isn’t just selling yoga pants, it’s selling a better-looking version of you. Lululemon’s value proposition is about making your life better, healthier, longer—while making you more attractive, too. No one else was doing that.
Dream big and don’t be afraid to fail along the way
It’s also a good way to run your life: allow yourself to dream big, forgive yourself when you don’t quite get there and then try another path.
Peter Löscher, CEO of Siemens, told the New York Times in 2011. “If you think that you’re not making mistakes then you are not making the tough decisions that you should make as a leader.”
DreamWorks’s head of human resources now proudly tells this story as proof of the company’s conviction that “it is critical to empower employees to take risks, move boundaries and test the limits of their imagination. Simply put, individuals must be allowed to fail in order to innovate.”
The path to truly new, never-been-done-before things always has failure along the way. Failure is part of creating new and amazing things. We cannot both fear failure and make amazing new things.
Failure promotes success only if you actually take the time to analyze your mistakes. If failures go unreported, hidden away as shameful events, then no lessons are learned as an organization or as an individual.
“The reason I’m doing the best work of my life right now is because I have fifty years of mistakes telling me what to do.”
Many people, however, fear that dreaming big will lead to disappointment and conclude after a few mistakes that they’re simply not up to whatever new challenge they’re facing. Unfortunately, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because shame doesn’t encourage innovative thinking. Quite the opposite. Researchers have shown that self-censure is “inimical to original creative thinking.” In other words, beat yourself up and your capacity for innovative thought evaporates. “Self-compassion”—taking a non-judgmental attitude toward your inadequacies and failures is what promotes creativity. If you can forgive yourself for mistakes, you are not only more likely to learn from them, but you are also more likely to think innovatively.
One thing is for sure: without self-compassion, it’s much more difficult to move beyond assumptions and think innovatively about problems. It feels risky and uncomfortable to press control-alt-delete because it’s almost certain you’re going to make some errors, and that would be embarrassing. But paradoxically, the less willing you are to make mistakes, the more likely you may be to make them because you’ve narrowed your mind and drastically reduced your openness to new opportunities.
Borrow, don’t just follow
An invention is the removal of technical contradictions. For instance, to make a car go faster you need a larger engine—but then the car will be heavier and therefore slower. Removing the contradictions, rather than accepting negative trade-offs, requires invention. innovations that remove those contradictions rely on scientific effects outside the field in which they were developed. In other words, if you’re wrestling with a problem, chances are good that someone, somewhere, in a different field has already wrestled with the same sort of contradiction—and the most efficient and effective way to solve your problem is to imitate some aspects of their solution.
Borrowing can kick-start the process of innovation.
The fine line between judicious borrowing and blind following can be discerned with just a few questions: What is my problem, exactly, and where do I want to end up? Why did this approach work for others? Could I adapt it to my own situation? Am I doing this because I think it’s a really good idea for me, or so that I can steam ahead without having to think any more? Answering those questions can help prevent a gigantic strategic error,
People who aren’t happy in their work aren’t curious enough about trying to change it into something they could love, or aren’t curious enough about what else they could do. Personal reinvention is not nearly as scary as most people think. And if you have to innovate not just in your own life but in your business in order to get there, so much the better.
In reality, when employees are allowed to question authority, they are more likely to feel invested in their jobs and therefore more likely to perform them well. And when they are actively encouraged to question the status quo—when their viewpoint is sought out and valued—they are far more likely to think innovatively and come up with the sorts of ideas and feedback that help move an organization forward.