The Quest for Beautiful Questions in Outer and Inner Space

Oct 04 2015

In The Martian, the stranded astronaut Mark Watney has to use his wits and scientific knowledge to overcome hostile landscapes and environment, tragic accidents and the loneliness of being the only man left on Mars. The story focuses on his ingenuity in solving all the problems that he comes up against. And why is Mark Watney so good at solving all the problems that confront him? He is also very good at asking the right questions.

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger lays out the beauty of asking the right questions (perhaps Mark Watney read the book himself?). Warren Berger focuses on three crucial questions that frame the whole innovation and design process, starting with Why, moving to What If and then finally to How (framing a problem, generating ideas to solve the problem and then prototyping solutions). He lays out a beautifully clear process and framework for solving even the toughest challenges.

As he points out, it’s not that humans are bad at asking questions. As children we are all very good at asking question after question (read more here), but as soon as we get to school (or even pre-school these days) our questioning seems to slow down. Our education culture is all about “feeding” information to children designed to get them the highest marks in their constant rounds of exams, rather than encouraging intellectual curiosity and questioning. For example, in the US creativity scores have been constantly dropping since around 1990. He cites a statistic that pre-school children ask their parents around 100 questions per day, which drops off to virtually zero by the time they are at school. He also mentions Alison Gopnik’s work (read more here) that shows that young babies are like scientists in their thirst for knowledge and curiosity, and that the most curious children are often not the best in terms of exam scores but are often the most successful in life.

The Why? question is the start of the enquiry process and a question that we have previously written about (click here). For example, Edwin Land developed the polaroid camera following on from one very simple question: why do I have to wait for my photographs to develop? (The “Why does it have to be that way?” question). He followed this up with the “What if I could create a darkroom inside the camera?”, using his knowledge of chemistry, optics and engineering to come up with alternative solutions and finally moving to a “How do I make this work?”.

Thus, while the “Why?” question is all about seeing and understanding, the “What if?” quesdotn is more about imagining alternative possibilities and the “How?” question about implementing some or all of those possibilities until the best solution is found. In the same way, the astronaut Mark Watney asks, “Why can’t I grow plants on Mars?” to “What if I could … (use my own waste as fertiliser etc etc)?” to “How can I make that work?” and follows the same process for many, many other challenges.

In talking about “Why?” Warren Berger references the idea of the beginner’s mindset (freeing yourself of the habits of an expert, popular with Steve Jobs among others) and recommends:

  • stepping back
  • noticing what others miss
  • challenging assumptions (including our own)
  • gaining a deeper understanding of the situation or problem through contextual enquiry
  • questioning the questions we ask
  • taking ownership of a question

I love his quote from Shunryu Suzuki on the topic of the beginner’s mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.

Perhaps the question that Mark Watney masters more than the others is “What if?”. stimulating him to come up with creative ways to reuse, reinvent and combine the equipment and materials he has on Mars to create ways to solve big problems (such as breathing, making water and growing plants). As many others have observed, creativity is mostly about making new connections between things that have not previously been connected and Mark Watney makes good use of this. His solution to the problem of cold is to reinvent a radiation device as a heater. A more well known example of this is the invention of bar codes, originating from a grad students time as a boy scout. He asked himself, “What if Morse code could be adapted graphically?” leading to the invention of the bar code. A more fun example is the invention of the rolling clock which cam from the questions, “What if it was harder to turn off my alarm clock? (the inventor as an over-sleeper) and “What if I put wheels on it?”.

Of course Mark Watney is also very good at the how, and his background as an engineer and botanist means that he uses his very practical skills to great effect to give himself the chance to save himself (no plot spoilers here). As with much practical science, it’s often good old reliables like duct tape that help him to save the day.

Questions are challenging for businesses as they always suggest that there may not be an answer (or at least there is no definitive answer). Businesses thrive on certainty, but of course certainty closes down huge areas of opportunity while questions open them up. Warren Berger makes a very strong case for changing brain storming approaches to focus more on coming up with questions and less with coming up with answers. This is something I intend to try in the future.

Both books are highly recommended for any inquiring minds. A More Beautiful Question will help you look at the business of problem solving and creativity in a fresh way. The Martian will keep you gripped from start to finish. Having read the book I can’t wait to see the film over the coming week.

What if you or your business suddenly found itself on Mars? What questions would you ask?


The Martian by Andy Weir

A More Beautiful Question: The power of enquiry to spark breakthrough ideas by Warren Berger

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