Why don’t we ask better questions?

Berat Efe Alkan
5 min readOct 16, 2020
Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Let’s do a simple test:

Do you remember the last time you paid attention to the questions you ask?
Do you know what type of questions you ask?
Do the questions you ask to have an answer hidden inside of it? (Like a yes or no question)
Do the questions you ask spark your curiosity and excite you?

If your answers are mostly ‘no,’ the reason behind this might be pretty obvious; we put much more effort into answers than questions. As Dan Rothstein, co-founder of Right Questions Institute, also says, we think of questioning as a simple task rather than a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking.

In my experience, the questions we ask are mostly focused on one premise: Making sure that we understand each other. We see communication as a way to express our ideas rather than building them through dialogue. This leads us to ask fewer questions.

Would it be possible for us to develop a better idea if we focused on asking better questions?

Warren Berger calls these types of questions catalytic.

Catalytic questions are not the ones you can ask Google. They are questions that lead up to creative thinking. You can probably relate to that experience. First, there is a question that makes you think differently and you are now able to see something different. Second, this question fuels your action. You go out and try, learn, investigate, tinker, or play. Last but not the least, there is a surprising result that makes you feel good. You have come out of the experience with learning something new and maybe creating something new.

It turns out, many innovations generated in the last 50 years also started out with good questions. Salesforce’s question of birth was focused on a clever observation and huge frustration: Why are we still loading and upgrading software and running our own hardware in the way that we have been doing all this time when we now have the Internet?

Another example is KODAK, which shifted photography from a professional only capability to mass use introducing everyone to a new hobby. George Eastman — Founder of KODAK asked Could photography be made less cumbersome and easier for the average person to enjoy?” Pretty inspiring when you think this question was asked in 1888, and now it is a crucial part of all our daily lives.

Catalytic questions also make us think in a different way than we are used to. James Watson and Francis Crick, who always saw DNA under technologically disadvantaged microscopes in a 2D form asked “What might DNA look like in a 3D form?”, which led to the discovery of the double helix which we are all familiar with today.

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sounds exciting but being in a constant inquiry mode is no easy task. We are more inclined to solve problems quickly; one of the ways for our brains to save energy. We instinctively act as if we don’t have time to stop, reflect, and ask questions. That’s why if left alone, we are more prone to ask fewer questions. Here are some common ‘modes’ that make us ask fewer questions:

  1. Being focused on fixing problems: We are much more interested in solving the problem fast, rather than stop and spend time to understand the problem. We feel like we are in a rush and eventually don’t ask questions even if we don’t clearly understand sometimes. But the reality is, our purpose is not to have ‘quick decisions’. If we want to discover, we have to be able to spend some time and risk being mistaken in the process.
  2. The belief that real work is analysis: We think that real work is about detailed analysis and most of us feel like we are supposed to have a detailed answer about the matter at hand to be able to make quick decisions. But the reality is, we cannot base all our actions on concrete analysis. In the true nature of strategic and innovative thinking, there are many more questions than analysis. We have to be comfortable in ambiguity and take actions based on our questions if we want to create change — especially when we are focused on the future.
  3. Falling into the trap of expertise: Sometimes, we get too comfortable in our comfort zone and act like we already know everything we need to know and all the questions we need to ask have been asked. But the reality is, we should be in a constant learning mode, where we always challenge our assumptions and change our perspective.
  4. Leading with answers rather than questions: A general misconception is that a great leader should always have an answer. We feel like it is uncomfortable or ‘embarrassing’ for a leader to not know. But the reality is leaders are also human and their creative trigger comes from the questions they ask. A great leader is all about questions, and questions that lead their team to inquiry and new discoveries.

One of the main reasons why we are more likely to fall into these traps is the way we model our organizations.
Eric Ries says that this is a result of our industrial economy, which causes organizational cultures to push for answers. In a “pro-answer” culture, if you have answers you can be confident and if you have unanswered questions this means you didn’t do your homework. It is no surprise that this phenomenon goes beyond corporations and also has an impact on our education system. The Industrial Economy demands people who have answers, and the system that prepares individuals for the workforce is obliged to be designed that way. After all the whole point of our education system is to have the right answers rather than the right questions.

Professor Clayton M. Christensen once said:

“If all you do as you’re growing up is watch stuff on a screen — or go to school, where they give you the answers — then you don’t develop the instinct for asking questions,” “They don’t know how to ask because it’s never been asked of them.”

Asking good questions is one of the key ways we can reshape our thinking in a controlled and mindful way. What would happen if we used questions purposefully as a tool to reshape our thinking? And how could we do that? Share with us your thoughts.

Resources and Further Reading

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; Warren Berger: Bloomsbury USA.

The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; Warren Berger; Bloomsbury USA.

Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life; Hal Gregersen; Harper Business




Berat Efe Alkan

Helping organizations to transform to a point even I would want to be a part of (but then don’t be a part of) @ HMD Interested in Creativity | Strategy | Design