There’s only one way to solve really hard problems.

Ask really good questions.

Journalists learn that lesson early on. Building an accurate and informative story means asking a question, listening to the answer, then asking another question. Do that until all of your questions are answered, and you’ve probably come pretty close to the truth.

In a business sense, a good question is much more than a quest for information. It’s a catalyst that can spur your team to deep thought, innovation and, eventually, even transformation. In his book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger quotes scientist and author Stuart Firestein:

“One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

That same line of thought surfaced at the recent ASAE Technology Conference. During a panel discussion on the strategic role of chief information officers, three points hit home:

  • John King, CIO for the American Physical Therapy Association, said IT, in its simplest form, is about relationships. A simple question — “What problems are you having?” — can often go a long way toward solving organizational dilemmas.
     
  • Kara Freeman, vice president and CIO of IT services for the American Council on Education, said a CIO’s success often depends on his or her ability to listen. “Sometimes simply listening speaks volumes,” she said.
     
  • George Breeden, executive IT advisor for Hartman Executive Advisors, said IT strategy usually can be reduced to this powerful question: What are you trying to do? “The answer,” Breeden said, “is usually a business problem, not a technology problem.”

This stuff goes way beyond the IT world. Every problem that any of us have can usually be boiled down to a lack of understanding. Gaining that understanding means asking the right questions.

Solutions don’t just appear out of thin air. We have to find them. The first step is to stop demanding answers and start asking questions.

The magic will begin when we start channeling our inner journalists.

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