Asking the right questions to invoke creativity

To invoke creative thought you often have to ask the right types of questions.

Questions that will stir up new connections between concepts in your brain, or questions that will lead to other questions. But what are the right types of questions?

In his book Beyond the Obvious, Phil McKinney explores from a top-level perspective:

“After more searching and studying, I came up with two basic categories of good questions: factual and investigative…The objective of a factual question is to get information: ‘Do you want coffee or tea?’ 'How many units did we sell last week?’ 'Is there gas in the car?’

“You may not know the immediate answer to a factual question, but you know how to find it. There is no real discovery required beyond expressing your opinion, making a call, or looking at the gas gauge. Factual questions serve an important purpose in allowing us to communicate with each other and exchange information. They are limited in their ability to do anything more nuanced than gather information.”

McKinney continues by getting to the heart of good questions, which he’s dubbed as “investigative questions.”

“An investigative question, on the other hand, cannot be answered with a yes or a no and is much more useful for our purposes. By definition, it is a divergent question, meaning 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.”

Investigative questions are more likely to lead to creative results, due to the wide array of possible responses.

Asking what a larger or smaller version of something might look like and how it would affect how that something functions is a great example of an investigative question. Asking how something would work in space, or what people would think of something 50,000 year from now, are other great examples.

When you’re looking for creative questions, ask the ones that are less informative and more exploratory, that’s where the most thought-provoking insights lie.

Photo by Sodanie Chea.