You always know it when you meet someone who has a two or three-year-old at home. They’re easy to spot because they always have this exasperated look on their face.
The source of this exasperation is the never-ceasing series of one-word daggers to the heart: “Why?”
Young children have an insatiable curiosity, which results in them turning to the people whom they see as the fonts of all wisdom — their parents — for explanations on how everything works.
As any parent knows, however, this continuous questioning is exhausting. When it begins, it is cute and endearing. But as it continues, it becomes a bit like Chinese water torture in which parents go crazy one innocuous why at a time.
Eventually, however, this intense curiosity fades. Parents tire of the process, and the world isn’t very kind to people who always question everything. As a result, most people learn to follow the rules, do what they’re told, and not question much of anything at all.
Throughout the industrial age, this worked well enough.
As we enter the digital era in earnest, however, it’s a recipe for failure. More importantly, the secret to our survival as both companies and individuals may, in fact, be to rediscover and unleash our most natural and most underused ability: the power to question.
In a recent article entitled The fallacy of obviousness, Professor Teppo Felin of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School takes issue with a famous study in which people are asked to count the number of times the players on one team pass a basketball to one another.
While the participant is busy counting, a gorilla walks across the screen, pausing in the middle to pound its chest. The results of the study were that about 70% of the participants completely missed the gorilla.
From the results of this experiment, the researchers concluded that humans were often ‘blind to the obvious.’ Professor Felin, however, believes that there is another, more accurate reason that people miss the gorilla: it was irrelevant to the question the researchers asked the participants to answer.
According to Felin, humans do not observe the world passively. Instead, the questions we are trying to answer define our perceptions — what we see as obvious. It is, in fact, this ability to focus our attention — even overlooking something as seemingly glaring as gorilla crossing the screen — that enables us to function and gives us an evolutionary edge.
We receive way too much information to process it all passively. Instead, we direct our brain to process and filter the vast amount of information we collect to find information that is valuable to us — to answer the questions we are trying to answer.
In effect, we are wired to question.
The fact is that the ability to ask great questions has always been vital to human progress. All of history’s great thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creators have found their success by embracing their curiosity, asking the tough questions, and then pursuing the answers.
But in the industrial era, it was only the intellectual elite that were afforded the luxury of such high-minded activities. The rest of us were expected to work the systems and follow the processes that these elite minds created — and to not question anything.
Organizations, however, now have another type of worker that will follow a process and do what it’s told — more efficiently and more cost-effectively than a human: an intelligent computer.
In the digital era, organizations will automate any business process that they can reduce to an algorithm. Unfortunately, such processes account for a massive part of what most enterprise employees do on a day-to-day basis. As a result, many of those employees are at risk of having an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered system take over their jobs — partially or wholly — in the near future.
But there are several tasks that even our most advanced AI systems today cannot accomplish. As Professor Felin puts it, “Knowing what to observe, what might be relevant and what data to gather in the first place is not a computational task – it’s a human one.”
He argues that no matter how intelligent AI-powered systems become, their scope of abilities is limited to answering questions — but they cannot determine which questions to ask or why they may be relevant to any particular situation (at least until we reach the artificial general intelligence state, if we ever do.)
The result for both organizations and their employees is that there remains an essential human role — mainly as enterprises more fully embrace AI: to ask the right questions.
The ability to ask the hard questions is more than just the saving grace for competing with AI. It has much broader implications for both enterprises and enterprise employees.
If you assess the drivers of an enterprise’s ability to survive and thrive in this period of disruption, a few organizational and cultural characteristics rise to the top: they possess an innovative culture, they can foresee disruptive threats and opportunities, and they can rapidly respond when they do.
All of these characteristics are rooted in the ability to explore a situation, determine the right questions to ask, understand the relevance of the questions to the situation, gather the data necessary to answer them, and then act upon the answers.
Said another way, it is the power of the question that enables an organization to innovate and change — the very fuel of digital transformation.
Talking with business and IT leaders about their digital transformation efforts, I have observed that the most significant challenge for those who have struggled in their efforts is a lack of imagination.
They and their teams end up boiling digital transformation down to its lowest common technology denominator — turning their effort into something that everyone can more easily understand, but which is devoid of the innovation and wholesale change that must be at the center of any transformative effort.
In many cases, this perceived need for a forward-looking and progressive plan leads to countless wasted hours building out strategies and roadmaps that everyone knows will be meaningless the moment they are complete.
In contrast, those organizations that are finding success have been able to unleash the creativity of their teams and to create a culture of innovation. While such creativity manifests in many ways, it comes down to the ability to create an environment in which teams and employees are free to question everything.
Those organizations that are succeeding in creating a culture of continual change, embracing innovation, and adapting to rapid changes in the marketplace are the ones that welcome the power of the right questions and empower their employees to ask them.
Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, Microsoft is an Intellyx customer. None of the other organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Scott McLeod.