One of the most important skills we can have – is the ability to ask questions. This ability underpins our ability to discriminate.
Discrimination has been given a bad rap: we are told not to discriminate based on age, sex, race, sexual orientation and so on. But in the process, all discrimination is tainted.
If you can’t discriminate between poisonous and non-poisonous plants, or dangerous or safe animals, you won’t survive long. If you can’t discriminate between good and bad, new and old, valuable and non-valuable you will miss all opportunities and fall victim to perfectly foreseeable disasters. (You get the idea of the picture above?)
The ability to discriminate is important – crucial even – and yet we are expected to acquire this skill by osmosis.
From a business perspective we commonly rely on questioning to discriminate. I wrote previously about the million dollar question, but this post is more about the nature of questioning and the purpose of questioning.
Steve Jobs is famous for saying (effectively) that Apple does not do research because customers don’t know what they want:
It's not about pop culture, and it's not about fooling people, and it's not about convincing people that they want something they don't. We figure out what we want. And I think we're pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That's what we get paid to do. So you can't go out and ask people, you know, what the next big [thing.] There's a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, 'If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’
Jobs knew that it is almost impossible to ask the customer the type of (right) question that will give you a valid answer when it comes to researching new products that don’t exist.
My doctoral thesis changed because a professor asked me a question I could not answer. I can’t remember what my first proposal was, but I can remember his response because I learned something powerful that day, when he asked me:
Dave Trott is a Creative Director of a London Agency. He writes an interesting blog – here is an example - and his book is titled Predatory Thinking. What predatory thinking boils down to in my mind is simply the ability to ask questions that other people don’t.
Some example of good and poor questions:
POOR: Is Facebook a good platform to advertise on?
GOOD: Why are people using Facebook?
POOR: Should I build a website or an app for that new service?
GOOD: How do customers want to engage with my business?
I won’t keep going, but you can see readily that poor questions are the ones that have binary/ closed answers. Good questions on the other hand reveal something essential about the topic.
These are legitimate answers:
· Facebook is a good platform to advertise on.
· We want faster horses.
· We want faster modems.
The follow up question is: SO WHAT?
What are you going to do with that answer? How is it useful?
Simply knowing there is a lot of people on Facebook does not mean anything. Unless you can answer the question that follows: so what?