As part of the ‘Read & Grow’ series, MMA hosted a panel discussion centered around the theme of the book “The Book of Beautiful Questions” authored by Warren Berger. Guiding the conversation was Mr. Sreenivasan Ramprasad, the Director of CADD Centre Training Services. He engaged in dialogue with Dr. Suresh Ramanathan, Dean & Principal of the Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and Mr. Kishalaya Das, the Executive Vice President & Head of Sales for MEA, India, and ASEAN at Intellect Design Arena Ltd.
Mr. Sreenivasan Ramprasad:
“The Book of Beautiful Questions” covers four areas: creativity, leadership, decision-making, and interpersonal skills. There are close to 400 questions in the book. Being an effective leader is not so much about having all the answers as asking the right questions. Questioning is critical to success. It can help you become a better thinker, a better partner, a problem solver, and a great leader. According to the author, a beautiful question is one that causes people to shift their thinking, and it is intended to bring about a change.
Many of us hesitate to ask questions for four reasons. The first is the fear that if I ask a question, people may think that I don’t know anything. The second is the thinking that I already know. The third is my own biases. And finally, I don’t have time to ask questions. These are the four enemies of asking questions. If you want to ask questions, ask the questions to yourself first. For example: Am I comfortable raising questions with no immediate answers? Am I willing to move away from what I know? Am I open to admitting I might be wrong?
The typical traps of questioning are the fear of the unknown, the tendency to focus on the wrong information, confidence in our own forecasts, and the inclination to favour information that confirms our pre-existing notions. The author compares a soldier and a scout. A soldier has a mindset of defence while a scout always seeks out to explore and discover.
Myths on Creativity
The notion that creativity must come from completely original ideas or sources is a myth, says the author. As a prime example, in 2000, Steve Jobs combined the elements of a cell phone, BlackBerry, camera, and iPod into a highly original combo package and came out with the iPhone. That’s creativity. To have good relationships with people, instead of asking people, ‘How are you?’ we can ask questions like, “What’s the best thing that happened to you today? What are you excited about in your life right now? What are you most passionate about? What problem do you wish you could solve? What did you want to be when you were growing up? What would constitute a perfect day for you?”
A great questioner must have great listening skills. If you’re just hearing and not listening, the relationship doesn’t move forward. We are also quick to criticize people. Before you criticize someone, ask yourself these questions: “What’s motivating this critical urge? How am I guilty of the thing I’m criticizing? How would I react if someone said something similar to me? What positive result do I hope will come from saying this? Am I deriving pleasure from criticizing?”
A leader must ask questions like, “What do I want to lead? Why do I want to lead this? What do I want to achieve from it? Why would others want me to lead them? Am I willing to step back in order to help others move forward, or am I just looking at myself? Do I have the confidence to be humble? Can I learn to keep learning? Do I seek to create an organization in my own image?”
Finally, the author says that questioning plus action can lead to change (Q+A=C), and questioning minus action equals philosophy (Q-A=P).
Questions Changed Him
I’d like to narrate a personal story that happened in my career. It was probably in the early 2000s. We had recruited a salesperson and posted him in Bombay. Three months down the line, we couldn’t see any results from him. We were in a dilemma whether to continue with the person or let him go. But we wanted to give him a chance. So I took him and went around meeting clients.
During the meeting, I asked a lot of questions to my potential buyers. At the end of the tour, he asked me, “Are we allowed to ask questions to buyers?” I said, “Why not? What’s wrong in asking questions? If you ask questions, you can understand somebody better.” That changed him, and he said, “Please give me a month’s time.” He changed the methodology and started producing results. He’s now one of the regional directors in one of the leading companies in Bombay today. Questions can change your career.
Dr. Suresh Ramanathan: As an academic, I always ask questions. All the research that I do is based on the questions that we ask. But sometimes, we tend to have certain preconceived notions about a problem or a phenomenon that is happening in life. We may suffer from confirmation bias. But being aware that we have those biases certainly helps to reimagine the things that we do and the frameworks that we apply.
Having said that, I feel that the author also has a bias when he says that decision-making with a gut feeling is not right. We have what is called system one and system two thinking. System two thinking is the more conscious, careful, logical mind system. System one is the quick, intuitive gut feel kind of mind.
Mr. Kishalaya Das: There are four things which I took away from the book. The first is asking questions. As I am in sales, it comes naturally to me. The second thing is the importance of asking the right questions. The right questions must yield a desired response, which will help you to either sharpen your knowledge or your team’s knowledge. The most difficult part in our knowledge-based industry is the knowledge or expert mindset. I work for a FinTech company where technology is changing by the day. I’m only as good as my knowledge today. If I don’t upgrade tomorrow, I’m useless.
The third, when you ask questions in a public forum, be it a meeting or a gathering, you get visibility. Visibility is not just about written communication. It’s also about establishing yourself as a person who has an independent thinking process. Fourth, for us, designing is very important. We need to have the concept of design thinking. When we design anything, a lot of planning goes into it. We learn from the mistakes or good things that people have done. Spotting patterns and anti-patterns is a vital part of design. We cannot do that until we ask questions. We have to ask questions to practitioners and academicians.
Mr Ramprasad: Which section of the book resonated more with you?
Mr Kishalaya Das: The questions about sparking creativity struck me. I’m an engineer and I think straight, like most engineers who can’t observe different patterns. I always believed that creativity is a difficult concept for me. Now I understand that creativity is not about thinking of different things but about being able to crystallize simple things and making them better. Creativity can be in any field. Even when you’re cooking, you can have creativity and come out with new cuisines.
In our industry, creativity is nothing but innovation. If we don’t innovate, we are out of the business. The Nokia moment can happen to us. Nokia was the world leader in communication, making phones as well as mobile communication towers. They were so happy with what they were doing and kept launching the same kinds of products with minor changes. When the iPhone came, half of the Nokia factories were shut.
The important part of creativity is that you have to nail the idea down and then execute it. When you do that, you achieve success. In the corporate world, there is no philosophy. It’s all about turning ideas into actions and results.
Dr. Suresh: What appealed to me is the question, “What is your tennis ball?” which is finding your passion. It took me a long time to discover that my tennis ball is research and academics. That’s what really excites me. I worked in the industry for 10 years in sales and advertising. We launched MTV in India. But at the end of it all, my passion or my tennis ball is research. It is digging deep into problems, asking questions, and sometimes finding counterintuitive answers, which lead you to question the assumptions that you made.
We talked about the iPhone and Nokia examples. I’m reminded of another example which is the story of Motorola. Back in 1998, there was an executive who was on a cruise ship somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and was not able to reach his office. He came up with the idea of sending a bunch of satellites into space, from where you could get a signal and you can receive it on a satellite phone. They thought it was a big idea and invested something like $4 billion into this venture. To break even, they needed to sell half a million handsets. The phone cost $3,000 and the cost per call was $8 a minute. Guess what? They sold in the first year, barely 10,000. They had creativity but perhaps didn’t ask the right question, which was, “Will people have a use for this product?”
Mr Ramprasad: Asking questions is an integral part of building relationships. If you need to understand your clients, the only way to go about it is not assuming what they want but validating your assumption by asking meaningful and insightful questions. During my sales programs, I focus on questioning skills, which is one of the key skills of a salesperson. Now, how easy or difficult do you think it is to ask questions?
Dr. Suresh: I can go to a classroom and talk for three hours without having any problem based on what I already know, but what really excites me is when one person in the classroom asks me a question that forces me to think and come out of my comfort zone.
Mr Kishalaya Das: I recommend a 5C Question framework to my sales team. The first is curious questions. The second is comforting questions. The third is challenging questions. The fourth is confronting questions, and the last is collaborating questions.
We are in B2B sales. We sell to banks. We will largely be selling to the business owners in the bank. To first understand what they’re looking for, you should start with curious questions. I never go and start with a pitch. Based on the response, you can formulate a strategy in your mind and pose some comforting questions. Then you change your track to ask some challenging questions, like, “You’re making 100 bucks today? What do you need to do to make 200 bucks?”
These challenging questions will get the person to think about what he wants to get out of his own role. Then you ask confronting questions, and that is when you get the elephant out of the door. These are questions like, “What are the problems that you are grappling with?” It’s healthy to have disagreements, because the moment you have disagreements, the other person will start respecting you. If you nod ‘yes’ to everything, you will lose respect. Once you gain respect, you’re proposing to a partner. It is then that you ask collaborative questions like, “Can we work on it together?”
Mr Ramprasad: What is your view on the current generation with respect to asking questions?
Dr. Suresh: The current generation is certainly very curious. They have a natural, innate curiosity. It needs to be channelled because it can go in many directions. They are willing to question the status quo and the assumptions. I remember growing up, I had only two choices: getting into either engineering or medicine. Today, there are far more options. It is important for this generation to constantly seek and be a scout. I often tell my students that they are a potato in a sack full of potatoes and they should strive to be different. Our educational system unfortunately breeds mediocrity. We have exams that basically test the same things over and over. The current generation must explore a lot, and those in the present generation must encourage that. There is so much potential with the youngsters and they can go places that we could never have dreamt up.
Mr Kishalaya Das: I started my career in the mid ’90s, working for a firm in Bangalore. We were like a regiment of soldiers, listening only to what the team leader said. The first thing the present generation asks is, “Why do I need to do this? What is the advantage of doing it?” That’s the good thing about them. Our education system is also changing. But the important thing is to assimilate the knowledge gained through questions and utilize it to make it better for themselves, for the people around them, and for their companies.
Mr Ramprasad: When you ask questions to them, how do they respond?
Dr. Suresh: Before asking questions, I must create a collaborative atmosphere that doesn’t intimidate people, particularly when you have a power relationship. I tell my students not to be afraid to even say what I’m saying is rubbish.
Q: How can we improve listening skills?
Dr. Suresh: When you have conversations, you must strike the right cadence and take turns to listen and speak. If one person dominates, the other person becomes edgy and that becomes a problem. But the bigger question is, can you develop empathy while listening? Empathy is a deep-rooted feeling that people have deep inside the brain which occurs as a result of the mirror neurons that get activated. When we see someone smiling, that smile rubs off on us automatically. It’s called emotional contagion and it happens because of the mirror neurons.
Q: What are the strategies we can follow for making group decisions effectively and collaboratively?
Mr Kishalaya Das: When you start discussing in a group, look for patterns and anti-patterns. First, the problem statement must be clearly put up. Sometimes we try to solve problems without having an end goal in mind. Create a culture of openness to have a collaborative environment across the organization. Finally, the leader has to stand up and sign on the strategy.
Q: What role does curiosity play in leadership development and decision-making?
Mr Kishalaya Das: Decision-making will become easy if we are clear about the outcome that we want to achieve and for which, we need curiosity. Leadership is a management style. Not all leaders are the same. There are people who are very brash and don’t listen to anybody else. But, for the end goal to be achieved, you must follow a transparent and open process.
Dr. Suresh: Curiosity may or may not lead you to solutions but will leave you with many options that you might otherwise not have considered. From a decision-making standpoint, that leads to more complications because you have more options. But the fact that you have many options on your plate can ensure that you have better chances of getting the right answers or solutions.
Q: How can we overcome analysis paralysis?
Mr Kishalaya Das: Asking lots of questions and taking no action can become a waste of time. As a leader, you need to find out the right context and the right evidence to take a decision.
Q: How can questioning the assumptions lead to more innovative and original ideas?
Dr. Suresh: Let me give an example from my own life. I was a professor in Texas. I had a secure job and could have been there for the rest of my life. The assumption I was making at that time was that I don’t need to do anything and my life is well established. Then one fine day, I questioned that assumption. I gave up my tenure and came back to India to take up a job at Great Lakes. Here everything was completely different but I found my passion. When you question the assumptions that you’re making, something else can magically open up for you.
Q: Are there any cultural or social barriers to asking questions that we should be aware of?
Mr Kishalaya Das: Yes. India is multicultural. North India and South India are culturally quite different. Today, there is a sense of openness, but it’s important to know cultural nuances. For example, in Japan, you can ask tough questions, but you have to be extremely polite in asking them. In the US, you can be straight to the point. In Europe, courteousness would help, but you can be direct. We do a lot of cultural training if somebody goes on-site, so that there is cultural alignment. People should be aware of the do’s and don’ts in their geographic and cultural domain.