The power of questioning

As seen through Charles Duhigg’s best-selling The Power of Habit 

The following is a guest post by AMBQ Collaborative Team Member Daisy Azer (read more about Daisy on the Collaborative Team page).

I have been on a quest for the past few years of my life. I am looking to “reinvent” myself, my life, and, my professional career and to better match skills with passion. I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading which brings me to the AMBQ Collaborative Team and the A More Beautiful Question blog.

The path to this blog was the desire to think more like a designer in order to innovate. Without a doubt, I believe that a better understanding of how to ask questions is absolutely fundamental to design thinking and to arriving at better, more innovative outcomes.

As I was reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I was struck by the number of times the idea of questioning came up. Isn’t it funny how that happens in life? You start thinking about something and it pops up all over the place doesn’t it? But then again, it could just be that questioning is absolutely fundamental to better outcomes.

The Power of Habit is about how many of our habits are not formed by conscious decisions but more often by unconscious repetition of habits. The idea is that we can change our habits with a little more understanding and thought (questioning) about how habits are formed. According to Duhigg, we follow a cycle; a cue that leads to a routine that leads to a reward. This is called the habit loop. As per the author’s own personal example, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, we might tend to get up and go looking for something such as a snack and the reward might be a sweet treat. If we have a better understanding of what the elements of the habit loop are, then we can reset. We need to understand the cue, which in this case is time. We need to understand the routine, which is going somewhere to get a treat. We need to understand the reward. What were we looking for really? A stretch? A bit of social interaction? Energy from sugar or a caffeine jolt? If we are looking for social interaction but are snacking at the same time and gaining weight as a result, we can readjust. As Duhigg points out, we might just stretch and visit colleagues in neighboring cubicles. If we are looking for food (calories), we might simply change the treat to a healthier treat. Simple but powerful! Which leads me to the first lesson that keeps coming up.

Lesson #1: Some complexity is required before we arrive at simplicity. Use the process of questioning to wade through that complexity.

I believe that in order to arrive at something spectacularly meaningful, we need to wade into complexity. Before arriving at the simple answer and that “aha moment” that lands us in a better place or unlocks the key to the mystery, we need to spend time asking questions—a lot of questions.

An example from Charles Duhigg’s book is the story of Paul O’Neill. O’Neill knew how to ask questions. As Duhigg writes, “When a young Paul O’Neill was working for the government and creating a framework for analyzing federal spending on health care, one of the foremost issues concerning officials was infant mortality. … Rural areas, in particular, saw a staggering number of babies die before their first birthdays. O’Neill was tasked with figuring out why.”

According to Duhigg, O’Neill “asked other federal agencies to start analyzing infant mortality data, and each time someone came back with an answer, he’d ask another question, trying to get deeper, to understand the problem’s root causes… He drove people crazy with his never-ending push to learn more, to understand what was really going on.”

The end result was to trace the problem back to a much earlier starting point and the recommendation was to start by training the teachers who would teach the young mothers (well before they became young mothers) about nutrition. They could not have arrived at this outcome without asking a lot of questions. And this solution was not a band-aid fix but something that struck at the root cause of a very serious issue. As Duhigg notes, “Today, the U.S. infant mortality rate is 68% lower than when O’Neill started the job.”

Before you arrive at a simply elegant solution (where you spend your tax dollars wisely and effectively), you need to step into complexity and ask a lot of questions. Don’t settle with the first answer and think, “problem solved.” Be willing to go deeper first and find the more beautiful answer.

Lesson #2: But what if we don’t know what questions to ask?

What if we are stumped, and between a rock and a hard wall, and billions are on the line including potentially our own jobs? Well then, you can do a few things. One, you can take a step back. Two, you go deeper and immerse yourself into the problem. Three, you look elsewhere which is exactly what Drake Stimson did at P & G.

The product was Febreze and the marketing executives thought that they understood the right cue and reward but it was not working. The product was not selling. “The product’s cue—the thing that was supposed to trigger daily use—was hidden from the people who needed it most,” the book explains. The reality is that we become accustomed to scents in our homes.

“Drake Stimson’s team at P&G started looking outside the usual channels for help.” Sometimes we have to make connections that are not obvious. It starts with an immersion into the problem. The team watched hours and hours of tapes of people cleaning their homes and had conversations with people about their house cleaning habits. They also started reading up on experiments conducted by Wolfram Schultz and asked a Harvard professor for help.

We need to shift our focus in order to make those connections that are not obvious. A comment from a suburban housewife and a small moment caught on video showed a different cue and reward. The reward was a desire to have a pleasant odor as opposed to killing a bad odor. Today, Febreze sales account for more than $1 billion per year.

The process of questioning involves stages that can take us from an immersion into the problem to stepping back and also looking elsewhere. Immersion and observation can lead to learning. Connections are crucial when we need to arrive at a breakthrough.

Keep digging, the answer may be right in front of you—but just to the left or right or on the next video or in a different industry.

Lesson #3: Hmmm. How do we figure out good questions? Hint: It takes intentional practice (read work).

Duhigg quotes Eric Siegel who runs a conference called Predictive Analytics World, “Target’s good at figuring out the really clever questions.” The Target story is a cautionary tale of mining data to market products. Target has become extremely proficient at it. But it is a delicate balance of mining data to better serve customers while respecting people’s privacy. Andrew Pole started working at Target as a data expert in 2002. What he managed to do was to mine the data so as to understand and anticipate the needs of clients. Between 2002 and 2009 Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $65 billion. It is not the data, which does not mean anything on its own, it is how to figure out the right questions to ask.

There are two points here. The first is Duhigg’s lesson for creating new habits; that is, in order to create a new habit, we “must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.” If we go back to the habit loop, remember that we change the routine but the cue and reward are the same. So we build a better new on the old. The Target solution was that once they understood what to market to clients at any point in time, they had to change the way they marketed coupons.

The second point is exemplified in the last story of the chapter and relates back to lessons from Paul O’Neill who kept digging for answers. In 2000, the YMCA wanted to remain competitive and hired statisticians to help them better understand their customers. The expectation was that people wanted better exercise equipment and modern facilities. But what they found was that attendance was driven by emotional factors including the way that they were greeted when they arrived at a YMCA and how their social needs were satisfied. In other words, you have to go a little deeper, take more time and not be satisfied with surface answers.

The questions you ask will affect the answers that you get. How do we figure out good questions?

We start with complexity and ask a lot of questions. As designers do, we need to prototype, test and reevaluate. With that learning curve, we get better at figuring out the right questions to ask. It is an iterative process. It’s not rocket science; but it is work, albeit often a labor of love.

If we take the Duhigg’s personal example of going for a mid-afternoon snack, the idea is that we experiment by observing the routine and then making small shifts to vary the routine and see if we can get the same reward. This way we understand the craving and how a small shift can change the habit. Et voilà, a new habit is born! And sometimes, as the lessons in his book show, when we shift a keystone habit, there is a ripple effect and all kinds of other wonderful shifts occur.

The truly powerful lesson from all of this is that a good habit to get into is the routine of questioning in order to reap the substantial rewards of this process. Practice makes perfect. Start a new habit loop! As we learn the process of inquiry and questioning, we become better at it. Use the insight from the process of inquiry to develop cues to asking better questions and you will soon develop a cue-routine-reward system that will result in more beautiful answers to more beautiful questions—like what to do with your life to make a meaningful difference in this world.

Have you read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit? Let us know what you think of the book and Daisy’s take on the power of questioning.

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books about the power of questioning: BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry, THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead, and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Warren’s writing appears regularly in Psychology Today, Fast CompanyHarvard Business Review, and The New York Times. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts.

1 Beautiful Comment

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  1. Paul Copcutt says:

    Enjoyed reading this book earlier this year, certainly in my top 5 for the year so far.

    Daisy has done a great job of both summarizing the book and also making the connection to asking better questions. If we all did a little more of this, instead of jumping to pre-conceived assumptions (habit), wouldn’t the world be a better place?

    Just my toonies worth


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