For those of you who have kids, you will know they ask a lot of questions. “Why is the sky blue?”; “How does the water get to the tap?””; “Why do orange traffic lights mean drive faster?”. All great questions, that reflect the very essence of children as the seek to comprehend and understand the world.
Then questioning slows down and eventually stops, because as we grow up, the curiosity, the eagerness to question fades away with age. We learn to take shortcuts in life. Once we know a little of something we assume we’ve learned everything there is to know, to live. Or perhaps we have become accustomed to Google or Siri.
I think we are in a period of history like no other, a period of change that is both exciting and dangerous; a period of humanity, where we must question and ask why with all the power that we hold in our hands; with all the wealth, we now have; with all the technology, we have built, there is so much ignorance and there is so much suffering. Think about it, humanity now can go to the stars, to deliver what Galileo, Newton and Friedman dreamed about. And yet we all wonder why 3 billion people live on less than U$2.50 a day, or the incredible statistic that c.22,000 children die each day, due to poverty. It really must be questioning time.
So, when and how did we stop questioning, stop fulfilling our creative potential or even listening. Does it start through our school system as Ken Robinson advocates in his TED Talk where he wonders why creativity and the ability to question are reduced as a child progress through the school system. Our children are seemingly taught how to regurgitate in a world where maths and English are more important than creativity, thinking and learning how to question.
It becomes more pervasive when you start working which feeds the ambition to be promoted, with all the trapping and rewards that come with it. Our system thus rewards those that don’t question and conform, as a recent HBR survey shows. It highlights how prevalent conforming is, and when this happens, questioning does not occur. “Throughout our careers, we are taught to conform — to the status quo, to the opinions and behaviors of others, and to information that supports our views. The pressure only grows as we climb the organizational ladder. By the time, we reach high-level positions, conformity has been so hammered into us that we perpetuate it in our enterprises”.
When you think about the damage created with the GFC and how multiple companies across the value chain effectively created and manipulated the conditions which led to it, you must now wonder, why didn’t anyone who worked inside these companies question this?
This does suggest that a lack of questioning has been built in to each of us and perhaps as a society is now a social norm. It is natural to all crave safety and stability, and perhaps it is easier to just accept the status quo, and go with the flow.
But there is so much risk for individuals, organisations and society if we take this blinkered approach, as “sticking with the status quo can lead to boredom, which in turn can fuel complacency and stagnation” (Francesco Gino). And take it a step further, if you don’t question you can have a situation where there over 78 million iPhone 7’s sold, while nearly 1 billion people can’t read.
So, what you can do as a leader, a parent, or a member of your community?
Start of by being your authentic self, and encourage others to be authentic. We are all different, we bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table, and this needs to be encouraged and celebrated. With the confidence that comes with authenticity, will come questioning, creativity, and debate.
We should all encourage and celebrate diversity. Diversity is not about quotas or looking good in Board reports, it is about thinking differently and allowing those thoughts to be available. With the confidence that comes with acceptance, will come whole different perspectives.
An organization and a community needs to and should foster broader perspectives. We are often so focused on our own point of view, with our way of life, in our own reference set, that we have real trouble understanding others’ experience, perspectives, and mindset. With the confidence of being open minded, will come great ideas and literally a world of learning.
Finally, I think we should encourage, and worship dissenters. It takes courage to speak up, knowing that people will push back, scream at you, arrest you and beat you. Dissenters create that questioning culture, and too often they are just written off, and not celebrated. Where would be without the questioning of Galileo who became the father of modern physics, despite the huge pressure from the society and the church.
Religion is one answer. Capitalism is an another. Neo-liberalism is an answer, conservatism another. Communism is an answer, democracy is another. These are all answers to questions from thinkers long since gone, from a society long since evolved. As our world evolves and changes so do the questions. If our mind is broadened and open, we can ask bigger questions. Bigger questions, for a bigger world, mean bigger answers. And with that mindset, we can solve the problem of poverty, children dying and the billions of people who can’t read.
The world is transformed by asking questions, not by providing answers.