Are you a beginner or an expert? Before you answer this, consider this statement from Shunryu Suzuki: “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities and in the expert’s mind there are few.” Why is this? Why are the experts so narrow minded and what opportunities might they be missing because of this?
Think back to when you were just a child and see if you can remember all the questions that you asked. Kids can drive adults crazy sometimes because of their continuous stream of questions! Kids do this to gain knowledge and to fully understand situations or concepts. They are beginners in everything.
As they grow older and gain knowledge, the number of questions they ask drop because they take their knowledge and apply it to identical and even to new situations. They find out that they can understand the new situations by extrapolating their existing knowledge into the new areas. They become self proclaimed experts and they slowly stop asking questions.
While the skill required to extrapolate knowledge and learning like this is important in our development as individuals, there is also a huge risk that we will miss critical elements in the new situations we encounter if we are only extrapolating our existing knowledge. This could result in our knowledge being applied incorrectly. Sometimes these mistakes can be minor and easily corrected with a few iterations but they can also be catastrophic and result in the failure of products, businesses, industries, etc.
The good news is that most of the time we can avoid these failures if we simply continue to ask questions to gain understanding. This means that we must speak up during meetings, training, business reviews and other forums and ask questions that no one else is asking. We need to stop acting like the expert and instead enter meetings and situations with the mindset of a beginner and question why, how, what, etc. Basically, go in with an empty mind and strive to fill your mind by asking questions. In doing this, you are not making assumptions and extrapolations that are based on your experience instead of the reality of the situation.
This may seem uncomfortable at first but it is critical to push through this discomfort so that each situation is framed correctly and the best possible solutions are attained. Peter Drucker, arguably the most famous management consultant in recent history, used this questioning technique very successfully throughout his long and illustrious career. According to Rick Wartzman (Executive Director at the Drucker Institute), Drucker once remarked that his greatest strength was “to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” You can catch a glimpse of how Drucker approached management and business by reading some of his 39 books!
So, practice asking questions during your day. Make it a point to speak up and contribute by asking questions that drive clarity and understanding into every situation you are involved with.
For more information on asking the right questions, refer to my previous blog post, What Kinds of Questions is Your Organization Asking or to A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger or to Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice