Today's Reading

Many of the innovative entrepreneurs we interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture. Michael Dell, for instance, told us that his idea for founding Dell Computer sprang from his asking why a computer cost five times as much as the sum of its parts. "I would take computers apart...and would observe that $600 worth of parts were sold for $3,000." With that "Why should it cost so much?" question in mind, he hit upon the business model that made Dell such a force in the industry. From others we heard about long-standing predispositions to challenge assumptions and conventions. "My learning process has always been about disagreeing with what I'm being told and taking the opposite position, and pushing others to really justify themselves," Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, told us. "I remember it was very frustrating for the other kids when I would do this." Innovative entrepreneurs love to imagine how things could be different. Asking themselves, or others, what is being taken as a given today that should not be assumed or accepted can be the best way to catalyze original thinking.

Over the years I came to appreciate that perspective-changing inquiry wasn't just about business innovation and organizational change. Questions have a curious power to unlock new insights and positive behavior change in every part of our lives. They can get people unstuck and open new directions for progress no matter what they are struggling with. Reframed questions, in whatever setting, turn out to have some fundamental things in common. For one thing, they have a paradoxical quality of being utterly surprising in the moment they are asked but in retrospect seeming obvious. In other words they carry with them a quality of inevitability without having been inevitable at all. For another thing, they are generative. They open up space for people to do their best thinking. They don't put anyone on the spot, demanding correct, often predetermined answers under threat of public humiliation. They invite people down an intriguing new line of thought that offers some promise of solving a problem they care about. I often use the word "catalytic" for these kinds of questions, because they act like catalysts in chemical processes: they knock down barriers to thinking and channel energy down more productive pathways.

On a personal level, too, I keep discovering how crucial it is to raise the right questions—sometimes by being caught out by not asking them. In January 2014, for example, I suffered a heart attack while giving a speech. Later, I had to come to terms with the fact that, for a few deep reasons, I had chosen to make some convenient assumptions about the state of my health, and it had almost cost me my life. A year later, in the spring of 2015, I had the chance to join my friend David Breashears, a renowned mountaineer, expedition leader, and cinematographer—he codirected and filmed the IMAX film Everest—at Everest Base Camp and to climb up into the Khumbu Icefall. We embarked on the adventure after having formulated what we thought was a great research question about leadership. The many expeditions that attempt to summit the mountain every year amount to a fairly controlled experiment: every team uses similar equipment and follows known paths. Yet some make it and some don't. Are there key differences to be found in the leaders of the successful ones—and the systems they cultivate around themselves? Meanwhile, though, in my planning of the trip, I hadn't been so focused on a quite fundamental question: Did I, who live these days literally at sea level, have any hope of being productive in a short jaunt above 18,000 feet?

Adding insult to injury, even my research approach turned out to have embedded assumptions I hadn't thought to question. David Breashears has seen many attempts on Everest fail in the many years he has been climbing on the mountain, some tragically. He was there in 1996 when the terrible events resulting in the loss of eight lives that were later described in Jon Krakauer's 1997 book Into Thin Air unfolded. Whenever I listened to his stories, I processed them in the mode of a leadership scholar, dispassionately forming hypotheses about, for example, cognitive biases in decision-making. On my trek from Lukla to Base Camp, I realized that it's one thing to be in an MBA classroom talking about bad calls like Rob Hall's fatal choice to try to get a straggling client to the summit even though it was far past the "safe time." It's another thing to actually be at an altitude where even breathing or thinking clearly is a challenge. I realized how wrong I had been to believe I was in possession of sufficient information to judge.

If you picked this up as a business book reader, expect to encounter a somewhat different style of narrative. Maybe that is already clear. I am fascinated by issues of leadership and innovation in organizations, and many of the interviews this book draws on are with CEOs and other high-level executives in the most innovative companies and social enterprises I know. But I have talked with these leaders as whole people whose lives are bigger than their very big jobs. The truth I have stumbled across—that the way to find better answers is to ask new questions—is not a truth that applies only to one part of life.

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