Brief

Open-ended questions such as “Why?” and “What if?” are better for generating problem-solving ideas than closed questions like “How?” that focus on accomplishing a task, writes Linda Zhang. “The other upside of starting with a question is that it attracts people who are similarly curious, and want to partner up in search of the answer,” Zhang writes.

 

Insight

People and companies start by asking all sorts of questions, but do it less and less over time; to be the best, keep asking questions.Throughout my life, I thought the smartest people had all the answers. Consulting firms take pride in being answer-first. Tech companies take pride in moving fast through iterating on the answer.

While expedient, I’m learning there are real costs to being exclusively answer-first. Starting with an answer instead of a question robs us of the opportunity to develop others, scale ourselves, and imagine a more interesting future.

We’re trained by school and work to come up with convincing answers, but where do we learn how to ask better questions? After all, every big idea can be traced back to a thoughtful question.

Game changers come from questioning the way things have always been done. They don’t typically emerge as fully-formed answers because there’s little precedent for them. They don’t start as an exercise in TAM, but rather an exercise in exploring overlooked opportunities.

They start with Why and What if, followed by a long journey in How to work out the details. How is answer-driven, but it comes after open-ended questioning of the problem space.

Imagine this as a bridge between wandering questions and focused execution. If you jump on any bridge, you may end up working on uninspiring answers. But if you never cross the bridge, you become lost. I think the best time to cross is when the What if is something you’re very excited to work on. The devil is always in the details, but picking a promising direction keeps you energized and determines your ceiling.

 

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