Thinker in Residence: Warren Berger

Sally Haldorson

April 17, 2014


"We’re all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions. " Warren Berger believes questions are more important than answers.


"We're all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions."

Warren Berger believes questions are more important than answers. He is the creator of the website and author of the new book A More Beautiful Question (Bloomsbury)—both focusing on the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. An expert on design thinking and innovation, Berger has interviewed and studied hundreds of the world's leading innovators, designers, and creative thinkers to analyze how they ask change-making questions, solve problems, and create new possibilities. Berger's last book was the international bestseller Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Business and Your Life (Penguin; 2009), published in several editions worldwide. Business Week named Glimmer one of the "Best Innovation & Design Books of the Year." A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Warren also writes for Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and was a longtime contributing editor at Wired magazine. He has been a guest lecturer at The University of Virginia, University of Colorado, The University of Oregon, University of Texas, Syracuse University, New York's School of Visual Arts, and Virginia Commonwealth University, where he gave the 2011 commencement address for graduating business students.

"A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something--and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change."

Our take on A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas:

From start to finish, A More Beautiful Question is challenging and provocative because it attempts (and succeeds) at doing the very thing it advocates for: ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Straightforward, yet still intriguing questions like:
Are questions becoming more valuable than answers? Why do kids ask so many questions? (And how do we really feel about that?) Can we teach ourselves to question? Why do smart business people screw up? What if you could not fail?
To more esoteric queries, such as:
WHY should you be stuck without a bed if I've got an extra air mattress? WHAT if your ideas are wrong and your socks don't match? What if our company didn't exist? How might we pry off the lid and stir the paint?
The above questions are a small selection of like entries that make up A More Beautiful Question's Table of Contents, and once you skim over the list, it's impossible not to delve in deeper. And really, that's the point author Warren Berger is trying to make. Asking questions--the right questions at the right time--is the best way to reveal innovative thought. If we aren't curious, and if we don't strive to wield our curiosity blade-side up, then we both invite mediocrity, but also court apathy. The first section of the book discusses "The Power of Inquiry" and teaches readers how to question not just for the sake of it, but to reach an actionable solution.
The Why/What If/How progression offers a simplified way to approach questioning: it's an attempt to bring at least some semblance of order to a questioning process that is, by its nature, chaotic and unpredictable. A journey of inquiry is bound to lead you into the unknown (as it should), but if you have a sense of the kinds of questions to ask at various stages along the way, you've at least got some road markers. Indeed, this is the beauty of "process" in general: It may not provide any answers or solutions, but...having a process helps you keep taking next steps....
While Section 2 addresses why we've lost our innate interest or ability to question, Section 3 returns to that Why/What If/How sequence and offers examples of how it can be applied. But it isn't enough to just ask questions. We need to learn to "question the questions." Which, as Berger acknowledges earlier, can kill enthusiasm for the task. ("Anything that forces people to have to think is not an easy sell, which highlights the challenge of questioning in our everyday lives--and why we don't do it as much as we might or should.") But simply asking a question doesn't ensure that it's the right question. No, it's not a sign that you are doubting yourself; instead, it is a sign that you acknowledge that the human mind has blindspots, and you sometimes need to double-check your blindspots--asking yourself five Why questions--before 'changing lanes.' After the Why, the What If questions are the next step toward dreaming up something new, of altering reality, breaking through asumptions. And the How takes us to resolution and action, or, as Berger says, the "How stage of questioning is where the rubber meets the road..." Berger concludes his book with sections on "Questioning for Business" and "Questioning for Life." In each section, he tackles some critical issues that impact all organizations and people. Asking "What if our company didn't exist?" allows a leader to look objectively at her industry and the contributions her company makes within that industry. Asking "Why are you climbing the mountain?" can reveal underlying motivations, or even nonexistent motivations, for achievement. Oftentimes we do things in the name of success but don't really know why it is we are doing them, or how they serve us as people as opposed to be symbolic conquests. It isn't important, Berger makes clear, that we know what question to ask before we ask it. Instead, what's important is that we ask in the first place.

"As to which question to choose, to some degree the question chooses you. It's the one that resonates with you for some reason only you understand. What will make it a beautiful question for you, and one worth staying with, is the passion you feel for it."


Check in with us tomorrow as we continue our Thinker in Residence series on Warren Berger with his Q&A interview on A More Beautiful Question.

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