How often are you asking questions?

Today is May 7 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you ask questions?” Another way of phrasing this question is ‘how often do you work on improving your ability to ask questions?’

Those who navigate the chaos understand the art, importance, and value of asking questions. Asking questions can help us better understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Inviting people to ask questions allows us endless opportunities to engage in a dialogue if, and only if, we maintain the ability to listen more than speak. The old adage “we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak” comes to mind here.

Dale Carnegie understood the value of questions and advised “Be a good listener” in his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” More than 80 years later, most people still fail to heed Carnegie’s sage advice.

Learning how to ask questions takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, and practice. Unfortunately, schools seldom teach this important trait. According to research published by the Right Question Institute, students typically hit their question-asking peak around four years of age. Once they enter school, however, their question asking dramatically declines. The percentage of children actively using the skill of asking questions goes on a serious downward trend from four years of age and continues until the late teens. Actively using the skill of asking questions stimulates thinking, provokes conversation, and inspires action. Three traits anyone, especially teens could benefit from on a regular basis.

One such example of how questions can stimulate thinking, provoke conversation, and inspire action comes from the 3-year-old daughter of Edwin H. Land in 1943 when she asked her father “why do we have to wait for the picture?” when he used his camera. Land explained to his daughter that he needed time to process the film in order to produce the photograph. Such an explanation did little to answer his daughter’s question so Land went to work on finding an alternative to the way pictures were developed. A few years later Land invented the Polaroid camera and revolutionized the history of photography.

In an April 2, 2020 Innovation Management article Paul Sloane recalls the time when Greg Dyke became Director-General of the BBC in 2000 and went to every major location and assembled the staff. “They came expecting a long presentation. He simply sat down with them and asked a question, ‘What is the one thing I should do to make things better for you?’ Then he listened. He followed this with another question, ‘What is the one thing I should do to make things better for our viewers and listeners?’ He knew that at that early stage he could learn more from his employees than they could from him. The workers at the BBC had many wonderful ideas that they were keen to share. The fact that the new boss took time to question and then listen earned him enormous respect.

As Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John wrote in the June 2018 edition of Harvard Business Review: “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”

Under the direction of a thoughtful leader or manager, double-loop learning offers an effective tool for organizations looking to ask the right questions to improve how and what they do. First detailed through research conducted by Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris during the 1970s double-loop learning is a valuable cognitive approach people and organizations can use to identify solutions to problems.

When organizations engage in a process of detecting and correcting error most rely on single loop learning that has three common characteristics: it is an insular mental process, people consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles, and current policies or objectives continue unchallenged. For example, what was the outcome of our actions? That is a single-loop question and goes in one direction.

Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when to turn the heat on or off. The thermostat performs this task because it receives information (the temperature of the room) and, therefore. takes corrective action. Although less commonly used, double loop-learning is a far more effective cognitive approach that involves questioning every aspect of the approach, methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions related to a specific situation.

This approach also relies on a heightened level of self-awareness, which many people are hesitant to pursue. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that people honestly challenge their beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

Sticking with our analogy of the thermostat: If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. For example, in a double-loop culture the leader or manager would ask “why are we setting the room temperature to 68 degrees in the first place?” Double-loop learning allows one to ask: “why are we doing what we are doing?”

Voltaire once noted “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Organizations that question the underlying assumptions involved with a process engage in double-loop learning and can navigate the chaos more effectively than those that only use a single-loop learning process.

How often do you ask questions?