ask more questions

A year's worth of belly button lint. (credit: David Burton)

Our daughter Daisy celebrated her fifth birthday last month. She’s a very creative five-year-old – full of questions and just a little precocious. Her questions sometimes appear random why is the sky blue? but can also be complex why is water wet? and often awkward why do you have so much tummy button fluff?

There have been numerous studies around our desire to know more and subsequently how this relates to creativity and our ability to think differently. One study discovered girls aged four are the most curious, asking an incredible 390 questions per day - averaging a question every 1 minute 56 seconds of their waking day.

In all, a parent’s knowledge is in such demand they get asked around 105,000 questions a year by their children. However, this level of creative thinking diminishes dramatically as we get older.

A UK Government study by Sir Ken Robinson tested children aged three to five. 98% showed they could think in divergent ways. By the time they were aged eight to ten, 32% could think divergently. When the same test was applied to thirteen to fifteen- year-olds, only 10% could think in this way.

However, remarkably, when the test was used with twenty-five-year-olds, only 2% could think divergently. Could this be because we have somehow forgotten how to ask questions? Or it is because we assume we know the answer?

Often we determine solutions without really questioning whether or not the assumptions used to determine solutions are, in fact, correct. Are constraints really constraints? Have we really understood the user in context?

One of the most important indicators of creativity, along with experimenting, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, environment-setting and resilience (Claxton et al., 2006), is the capacity to question, leading in sequence to a deep approach to learning.

“If we desire a broader application of creativity to clients’ business needs and issues, then we must go beyond the merely superficial and apply ourselves more seriously to asking more, better, and different questions” Martin Weigel

At forty2 we ask loads of questions, bags full. Time spent at the discovery phase of a new project is hugely important so here are four key questions we ask every time:

  1. What do we want the result to be? What is the real problem that we are trying to solve?

  2. How do we design for it? What are multiple possible solutions?

  3. How do we take into account all stakeholders on the journey? Is everyone on board?

  4. Are we improving? Is it better than it was before?

If we can recapture our childhood curiosity and the basic tool of questioning, coupled with a desire to learn, we can reframe the problem we are trying to solve.

Effective questioning can be used to surface key assumptions, to check and ensure that we are doing what was intended and that we are on the right track. Indeed, design-centred “what if” questions can open up debate and thrive on imagination.

So next time you approach a project don’t be afraid to take a step back and think like a five-year-old – just remember there are no silly questions.

Finally, if you are wondering, a scientist spent three years collecting 503 samples of his own tummy button fluff before concluding that a type of body hair traps stray pieces of lint and draws them into the navel. There you go.