Two methods for asking better questions

A favorite quote of mine from Socrates goes: “Understanding a question is half an answer.”

Famous American inventor William Edwards Deming echoed Socrates by stating: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

The importance of both these quotes cannot be overstated, however both what Socrates and Deming’s say can easily be misunderstood.

Undoubtedly asking and exploring many questions is beneficial, as doing so is a core attribute of creative problem solving. As Einstein famously said: “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” To be curious is to ask many questions, but what these quotes are undoubtedly hinting at is the value of asking and understanding the right questions. It’s not enough to simply be curious and ask many questions.

What matters is being able to understand the questions you’re asking and learning from them regardless of their answer or outcome.

What does it mean to ask the right question? What makes one question better than another? How do you start to understand the questions you ask?

First, you must pursue investigative questions, not factual ones. In his book Beyond the Obvious, Phil McKinney explains the difference between these two common types of questions can quickly end, or empower, your pursuit of new ideas or understanding.

McKinney writes: “By definition, a divergent question means that there is more than one correct answer (unlike factual questions). It cannot be answered with one phone call, or a quick check at some stats or figures, and forces us to investigate all of the possibilities.” To invoke creativity you should seek to ask questions with no common, quick-to-address answers; questions which will allow our thinking to diverge rather than converge. The benefit of focusing on investigative questions is their ability to help connect ideas which you may not first perceive as having been connected, rather than mere information gathering.

The next thing you must do to ask better questions is think about the attributes of the questions themselves. Getting meta is valuable for understanding the possible answers you might uncover.

Asking why the sky is blue is different than asking why we perceive the sky to be blue. But why? In one question the emphasis is on the science of our atmosphere, while the other focuses on the human body. But how often do we consider these types of attributes within the questions we ask?

When you’re asking a question, don’t merely ask it, ask what you’re asking and break down each component of the question in order to either invoke other questions or to better understand the question you’re already looking at.

One way to break questions down is to ask additional questions about the questions you ask.

I typically do this by addressing the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Who is this question for and who does it matter to? What is this question trying to answer, what might it be overlooking? Where does this question commonly occur? Is there anything I might learn from looking at where the question is asked? When does this question come up? Was there a certain prompt which influenced it over another possible question? Why does this question matter to begin with? Why not the opposite of this question?

The more you look into the very questions you find yourself asking, the more you’ll begin to understand them. And the more you understand the questions you find yourself asking—including the way you ask them and the structure that makes them up—the more you are to ask better questions in order to undercover new ideas, new ways of thinking, and ultimately creativity.