Take ownership of your questions

What do you actually do with those questions, once you’ve raised them?

Mark Noonan and the WovelIt’s one thing to ask great questions. But what do you do with those questions, once you’ve raised them? Do you just forget about them, and move on? Or do you act upon them?

This is one of the central issues I’ll be dealing with in my book. I think that beautiful questions are ones worth pursuing. I also believe (and there’s plenty of evidence to support it) that if you are willing to take the time to grapple with a challenging question, and to work your way through various stages of inquiry and investigation, you can often get to a beautiful solution—eventually.

When “what a pain” becomes a great idea

But first you have to “take ownership” of the question, to quote Mark Noonan. Noonan is an interesting guy that I encountered a few years ago. He was an investment banker who one day hurt his back while shoveling snow at his Connecticut home. This got him thinking and questioning. He’d noticed that whenever he was shoveling and felt a twinge of back pain, he would automatically start to change the way he shoveled to take pressure off his lower back. “I’d use my knee as a lever on the shovel to lift the snow,” he says. “Basically, I was making a fulcrum out of my body, and it worked.”

Which made Noonan wonder: “Why hasn’t anybody thought of combining a shovel and a lever?” This is a great example of connective inquiry—wherein, one speculates about the possibility of putting two existing things together to form something new.

Taking it beyond just a rant

People think these kinds of things all the time. But they don’t often act on those thoughts—and this is where “taking ownership” of the question comes into play. As Noonan told me, “People are always saying, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do this or make that,’ but it doesn’t go any further. It’s just a rant.” To bring about change, Noonan says,

“You have to decide, ‘I’m going to keep working on this question until I get something done.’”

In Noonan’s case, he started by trying to figure out, How would one actually go about combining a lever and a shovel? Pretty soon, he started thinking about adding a wheel to the mix: While the lever could be used to lift the snow, the wheel would keep the shovel moving forward. Eventually, Noonan left his banking job so he could work fulltime on answering his evolving question.

It took him two years to get the whole thing right, but when he was finished he had designed a shovel that plowed through snow twice as fast and with half the effort of a regular shovel. All the shoveler had to do was push forward and down, using body weight for leverage—no lifting involved, no strain on the lower back. Noonan christened his new device “the Wovel.”

Once you start questioning, it’s hard to stop

Today, Noonan has sold thousands of Wovels, and has launched a second career as a successful product designer. Almost all of his products are answers to a question. For instance, he once wondered, Why can’t someone create a dog leash that doesn’t get tangled between your legs? So he set out to answer that, and came up with a new kind of dog leash.

In addition to his advice about taking ownership of your question, Noonan also offers this useful tip: “Try to keep refining your question, to make it more specific. You start with ‘How do I shovel snow without hurting my back?’ and gradually the question evolves to something like, ‘How do I move snow more efficiently by shifting the weight?’ If you keep refining the question in this way, sometimes the solution will become self-evident.”

Do you know someone who has made questioning a central feature of his or her business?

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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.

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