To Ask or Not To Ask, That Is the Question

Opinion piece
07/07/2017 17:52

Innovation is the key to sustained success, even for a traditional industry such as the diamond trade. Successful innovation, however, starts with questioning what we do and why we are doing it. In view of the Antwerp Summer University program, “From Mine to Finger: A deep dive into the world of diamonds”, which starts in late August and will feature special sessions on Innovation & Diamonds, we bring you a summer reading suggestion from Bart De Hantsetters, President of the Syndicate of the Belgian Diamond Industry.

With summer holidays just around the corner, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend some reading for your summer vacation. Leave your thrillers at home, because I have a book that anyone who wishes to see our industry prosper in the years to come is going to want to read. To whet your appetite, I am happy to tell you why.
A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, by innovation expert Warren Berger, is all about the power of questioning; or rather, of asking the right questions. Berger discovered that top business people and innovative thinkers behind groundbreaking ideas like Netflix, Airbnb or the Theory of Relativity are very different, yet they all share one specific trait; they are all expert questioners. Using real life examples from various creative geniuses, Berger demonstrates why it is so important to ask the right questions. And, to be clear, we are not talking about ‘Google questions’.

In this Google era we live in, we ask more questions than ever before … just not the right questions. Again, this book is not about Google questions, where the search engine anticipates what you want to ask while you are typing. And don’t worry, it is not concerned with spiritual pondering of ‘life’s great questions’ either. Rather, it is about practical questions that require real answers; or, as Berger pens it, “A More Beautiful Question”.
Asking questions is something we do naturally as a child, but we are literally taught to stop asking. Those of you who have children will recognize what I mean when I refer to the “why?” age (also proven scientifically): the average four-year-old asks about 390 questions every day. But what is remarkable is that by the age of five or six, most of us have reached our ‘questioning peak’. It is all downhill from there. Our schools, but also we - as parents and among our fellow adults - do not encourage asking questions. Why? (There we go again, asking a question). Because asking questions - whether as a child, then as a student, employee, or just as a member of society - is often seen as uncomfortable, irritating or unpleasant. 

This is understandable. Scientific research demonstrates we often put our brains on autopilot. It is much easier to get along that way and therefore, so we think, much more efficient. By putting our mental capacities in neutral, we save mental energy, which improves our ability to multitask. In which case real questioning seems like the proverbial fly in the ointment.

Sit down for a minute and think about how often you switch to auto-mode in everyday life … and more importantly, in your professional life. In the company where you work, how often is time set aside to question your business strategy, to wonder whether you could improve something or ask why you are doing things this way instead of that way?
Berger argues that, especially in the world of business, the real danger is that people are so focused on ‘doing something’ that they skip or completely ignore asking the right question - ‘why are we doing this?’ - because it consumes too much of our precious time. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yet as the author shows, asking the right questions enables us to identify opportunities and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, before our competitors do. This is the one thing that all the success stories in the book have in common: asking the right questions can lead to a radically different approach … and to turbo-charged change.

The dangers of ‘knowing’

Berger also points to the danger of ‘expertise’. We all tend to get stuck in our own little worlds, where we ‘know everything’ and just ‘do what we do’. This, my friends, is precisely what characterizes our industry. Be honest: how many of us assume we are an expert with all the answers, that we don’t need new answers, let alone new questions. Outsiders don’t know our industry so they don’t know how things work. And to a certain extent this is true.

Expertise certainly plays an important role in our industry, but that shouldn’t stop us from wondering whether we are asking enough questions. Perhaps we are so accustomed to ready-made answers and all we ‘know’ that we don’t ever bother to ask questions. This is fine as long as the world doesn’t change. Needless to say, this is hardly the case.

I need ‘somebody’
Berger is right when he says, strangely enough, that we tend to believe that ‘someone else’ can and should solve our problems. Someone smarter, more capable or with more resources. This reminds me of the arguments we often hear in our industry when we talk about the challenges we are facing. By default, we believe it is up to somebody else to get the job done. ‘Someone’ must generically promote our product. ‘Someone’ must ensure access to bank accounts and financing. ‘Someone’ should make sure we sell more diamonds.

Again, this reflex is understandable, and as I have said before, unfair situations - especially the refusal of banks to work with us - cannot be justified. But the point is this: that ‘Someone’ does not exist. If we want to tackle the issues we are facing, we need to take the bull by the horns and do something for ourselves. Asking the right questions would be a good place to start. 
Furthermore, Berger identifies what makes the whole concept of questioning so difficult (and he does so by … you guessed it … asking the right question. More specifically; “if asking questions is so efficient, why don’t we do it more often?”). In order to be able to ask the ‘right questions’, we need to cede control, relinquish our power, if you will. Because asking questions means you are questioning the existing situation. And that’s where the difficulty lies.

In hierarchically structured organizations and companies, asking questions is perceived as something that will have negative consequences, for those who ask questions as well as for those who are asked questions. Questioners are often considered insubordinate, perhaps ignorant, or - in the worst case - both. Let’s be honest, this is a sticky, tricky area in this institutionalized industry of ours. The fear of losing power, or upsetting the established order sometimes has a paralyzing effect. At the risk of stating the obvious (and in an attempt to drive the point home): change is rarely easy or fast, but it is most certainly better than continuing to do what we do, just because we are used to doing it.
I leave it up to you to discover what happens next in the book, but I am firmly convinced our industry could use a strong dose of sunshine, rest … and questions.

Photo: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Idea, Hardcover edition (2014) from Bloomsbury, USA.