9 “takeaways” from Warren Berger’s presentation for Lam

1. “Step back!”

StepBackTo be a good questioner, you have to be able to step back – from assumptions, routines, the familiar. Steve Jobs used the term “beginner’s mind.”  George Carlin talked about “vuja de” – seeing the familiar as if it’s new. It’s the ability to look at something you’ve been doing the last 15 years, and ask, “Why are we doing it that way?”

In an article by Dave LaHote of the Lean Enterprise Institute, LaHote describes visiting a company where he saw that they were trying to improve a process – getting price quotes approved (before the quote was given to a customer). They had an elaborate approval process that took 2 weeks – and the company wanted to get it down to 2 days.

LaHote asked them: “Why do you have this approval process?”

It turned out it had been developed, years earlier, in response to one incorrect quote that was accidentally given to a customer by a new salesperson.

LaHote writes: “If they could just step back from the process and see it objectively—they would see it was adding no value to the customer.” But the company was too close to it, and that’s why they were focused on this question: How do we do it more efficiently… instead of this question: Why are we doing it at all?

» Bonus read: Improvement for the Sake of Improvement Means Nothing

2. Be on the lookout for mysteries and inconsistencies.

You’re looking for things that don’t make sense: Why are people doing X when they really should be doing Y? Look for inconsistencies, and as you walk around, ask others – customers, or people who are working on the frontlines – “What about our offering or our process doesn’t make sense?”

CoachAskingWhyIf you can find those inconsistencies, it may create an opportunity. Case in point: the Gatorade story. In 1965, a college football coach notices something that doesn’t make sense. He observes that his players are drinking a lot of water on the sidelines. This causes him to pose this beautiful question: Why aren’t the players urinating more? He shares this question with a professor at the university, who explains that the players are sweating so much that water can’t replace their fluids. And then the professor goes to work on developing a liquid that replaces body fluids better than water – Gatorade. That coach’s question proved to be worth $20 billion – because he saw something that didn’t make sense and he asked Why.

» Bonus read: Can You See the Opportunity That’s Right in Front of You?

3. Embrace the power of “How Might We.”

HowMightWeA great tool of collaborative inquiry, used by Google, Facebook, IDEO, and others. When you’re questioning as a group, use “How might we” to start questions – it lightens the mood, and makes it seem as if anything is possible.

» Bonus read: The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use

4. Brainstorm in questions.

BrainstormQuestionsPut a problem in front of the group – and all you’re allowed to do is formulate questions around it—no ideas allowed! Follow the Right Question Institute model: break people up into small groups, write down all questions. Have each group pick their best couple of questions. Then have the entire group decide, “What are the 3 great questions we want to take with us, from the meeting?”

» Bonus read: About the Question Formulation Technique from The Right Question Institute

5. Solve problems by asking Why / What if / How.

WhyWhatifHowModelThese three types of questions work well in a sequence. Start with Why (to try to understand the problem) – proceed to What if (to come up with ideas) – try to work your way toward How questions (implementation). Almost every innovation story can be broken down into Why, What if, and How stages.

» Bonus read: Tackle Any Problem With These 3 Questions 

6. Don’t abuse questioning (or, don’t be a question jerk).

  • JerkyQuestionersDon’t ask questions where you already know the answer and you’re trying to show how smart you are.
  • Don’t ask questions that are attacks in disguise. (Why on earth did you do that?)
  • Don’t ask questions that are overly focused on failure and negativity. Practice “appreciative inquiry” – the art of turning negative questions into positive. Example: Why are we so bad at X? How can we build on our strengths to get better at X?

» Bonus read: 5 Questions a Leader Should Never Ask

7. Build a better question.

8WaysImproveQuestionThere are many possible ways to improve a question, but here are 8 foolproof techniques: Open it up; Close it down;  Sharpen it;  Add “why” to it; Soften it; Neutralize it; Smarten it up; Simplify it.

Click here for the full article “8 Ways to Improve a Question.”

Q+PassionFastCo8. Eight questions to help you find your purpose and passion

Read my most popular article on

9. Take your questions home with you.

TakeYourQuestionsHomeEveryone says you should leave your problems at the office. But if there’s a “beautiful question” you’re working on  – How might I do this thing I’m doing in a fresh way, and take it to another level? – you should take that question everywhere you go.

  • Take your question for long walks, where great ideas are often found. Take it to bed with you – you just might wake up with an answer. Because that’s one of the wonderful things about questions – our minds keep working on them, over time.
  • Stay with your questions. And never stop asking them.  Questioning never ends, because continuous improvement is never-ending.
  • Share your beautiful questions with your family and friends – they can give you that great outsider perspective. Encourage them to ask more questions – especially your kids – because this is how we’ll produce the next generation of innovators.
  • When your kids come home from school ask them: “Did you ask a good question today?”
  • And while you’re at it, ask yourself the same question.


Questions? Comments?

Contact Warren via Twitter
Contact Warren via Email