Be More Creative (By Asking More Creative Questions)

by Sam Harrison

The starting point for Apple products isn’t a powerful chip or clever design, says Steve Jobs. Product development starts with questions, he says, and the kickoff question is usually: “What’s the user experience?”

“A major stimulant to creative thinking is focused questioning,” says marketing guru Brian Tracy. “A well-worded question penetrates to the heart of the matter and triggers new ideas.”

The good news is designers typically have lots of questions racing around their brains. After all, highly creative people are passionately curious people. But the bad news is we sometimes fail to ask those questions out loud. Or perhaps we don’t ask the right questions at the right time. Or maybe we don’t ask them to the right people.

Here are a few ways to polish your questioning:

Ask Yourself Questions Before You Question Others.
Start by looking at your core problem and framing it as a question. Keep focusing on this central question when preparing related questions to ask clients, end users and others. And don’t make people you’re questioning do your homework—only ask them questions that can’t be discovered through fundamental research.

Ask The Right People.
Sometimes we ask the right questions—but we ask the wrong people. Working to reduce malnutrition in Southeast Asia, most nutritionists questioned Vietnam villagers who had undernourished children on what they were doing wrong. But Jerry and Monique Sternin took a different approach. They questioned villagers with the best-nourished children on what they were doing right. It turned out those parents added sweet potato greens to rice and gave their kids several small feedings per day instead of two large ones. The Sternins spread the ideas, and malnutrition dropped by more than 65 percent.

Ask Open-Ended Questions.
Open-ended questions solicit thoughtful replies rather than one-word responses. They usually begin with words like “how” and “why.” Or they may sound like statements rather than questions, with phrases such as “walk me through…” or “tell me more about….”

Keep Digging.
Don’t stop with surface answers. Dig down with follow-up questions so people go deeper into the topic or problem. That’s where creative insights are buried. Avoid, of course, rapid-fire inquiries that make you sound like a prosecuting attorney. Make a few statements of your own between questions and sprinkle in a several closed-ended questions that allow short responses.

Ask Visceral Questions.
Ask questions that plunge into the heart. In 1982, toy-maker Hasbro interviewed young girls and asked them what they saw when they closed their eyes at night. “Horses!” was the overwhelming reply, so the next year Hasbro introduced My Little Pony, a toy that has delighted generations of girls.

Listen Closely.
Sometimes we’re so busy preparing to ask our next question that we don’t listen to the answer being given. Stay focused. Take notes. Pause between questions. Acknowledge answers—sometimes with a simple nod, sometimes with a few words.

illustration of conference table with participants and question marks

Don’t stop with surface answers. Dig down with follow-up questions so people go deeper into the topic or problem. That’s where creative insights are buried.

Image by Jason Bacher

Quick Tips
1. Don’t be afraid of simple, “how come?” questions. Take a cue from kids, and quit worrying about impressing people with the caliber of your questions. Instead, turn lofty inquiries into those childlike “how come?” questions—“How come the company does this?” “How come this works this way?” “How come we haven’t tried another way?”

2. Wrap-up with a magical question. Whether I’m discussing ideas with clients or interviewing people, I almost always end with: “What other questions should I be asking you?” It works like magic to deliver added insights. Sometimes the person says, “Well, you might ask me how I really feel about…” or “You might want to know why I’ve always been reluctant to try projects like this…” No matter how strong our line of questioning, we never uncover everything we need to know. Give the other person a chance to help out.

Dig Deeper!
1. See Sam Harrison’s idea-sparking exercises in HOW’s Creative Marathon for this week. Wednesday’s assignment asks participants to use a series of “why” questions to explore an issue or problem.

2. Study questioning techniques of pro interviewers like Charlie Rose and Diane Sawyer. Notice how they elicit strong, conversational answers by asking open-ended questions, soliciting visceral responses and displaying passion about the topic.

3. Practice your questioning techniques with friends, family, co-workers. And use open-ended questions to help you network and learn at HOW Design Live (where you can also catch Sam Harrison’s session “Galumphing, Goats on the Roof and Other Revelations for Inspiration”).

4. Read Sam Harrison’s books for more inspiration on creativity-related topics: IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers, IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command.

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