I’ll never forget meeting some people in a remote village of Laos (Southeast Asia) a few years ago. The village had no electricity. Not only was it a journey across culture and geography, but a journey back in time. Our translator helped us to ask about how they lived. They told us how they farmed, harvested, dried, and prepared rice manually. They made fishing nets with their hands, and fished with their handmade fishing poles from their hand made boats as they rose and slept along with the sun. We finally asked if they had any questions for us and there were just blank stares. It struck me as odd. There were no questions.
Were they shy, embarrassed, indifferent? Was it a cultural thing that I wasn’t aware of? Here we were, with skin colors, and eye colors that had rarely been seen, from a land on the other side of the planet (which may have well been on the other side of the Universe), with clothes and technology and language that was largely unfamiliar, and there were no questions!
The era of asking great questions
We’ve known for centuries that asking great questions (and finding the answers) is core component of innovation. Entire fields like physics and psychology have been developed because people started asking questions that needed to be answered. That’s nothing new and there’s plenty that’s been written about the importance of asking great questions.
But, we’ve never before been able to ask and answer questions as fast as we can today.
- What is my friend in India doing right now?
- Who do my friends know that I know?
- What the best selling widget is in a category I’ve never heard of until today?
- How long it will take me to get from any address in the United States to the Rapid City Regional airport based on current traffic conditions?
- Who currently lives in San Francisco that is from Laguna Beach?
Here’s the answer that I found via facebook in about 10 seconds:
We’re all being faced with an increasing array of new problems to solve on a path that hasn’t necessarily been traveled before. Google helps me get up to speed in minutes on words and concepts I’ve never even heard of before. Problem solving is a central competency of knowledge workers.
New landscape. New questions.
What’s interesting is that discovering the answers to age old secrets isn’t the only new frontier that’s opening. As technology advances, new uses are being invented on the fly by the marketplace. Never before have customers had the capability to be standing in a store, holding a product, and checking prices offered by that same store and a million others online in real time, while instantaneously getting feedback from friends and hundreds of strangers at the same time.
Simultaneously, product and service vendors have unprecedented access to watch prospects and customers interact with products, media properties, and people, en masse, in real time.
Job requirements and roles continue to evolve, at a faster pace. We all face this and organizations of all types and sizes are racing to keep up. But solving the problems you’re faced with reactively, and identifying new opportunities by creatively thinking about what could be is perhaps even more important, and more rare. Asking new, hard, unique questions is the key to unlocking new value for your organization. As markets shift and evolve and a new landscape comes into view, those that are asking the best questions have the opportunity to find the best answers.
Since answers to the questions of yesteryear can now often be answered in seconds, perhaps it’s time to ask a new set of questions. Questions that would have been impossible to answer or preposterous to ask just a decade ago.
- Can cells heal themselves?
- Can machines create new products by themselves?
- What happens if the world moves away from a fiat banking system?
- What patterns exist across domains that we thought were previously disconnected?
Why do we make enough food to give everyone on the planet 2,617 calories a day, but almost a billion people are hungry right now? Why can’t we change that?
The rapidly growing fields of Nanotechnology, bioinformatics, neuromedicine, augmented reality; None of these would be possible if someone wasn’t asking great questions.
What’s your most preposterous question?
What’s the most preposterous question you’d like to ask, but have never dared to ask it? Perhaps when you type in the comments below, it will be the first time you’ve ever thought to ask. Ask it, and then let’s sort out the answers together.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.