What was a good question that you asked today?

Despite the overwhelming majority of chief executives saying that driving growth via innovation is extremely important to their organization, most executives also say that their internal culture is holding back their ability to innovate. Dentsu Innovation solutions officer Jeff Tan explains that the first step in developing such an innovative mindset is adopting curiosity.

This spring my son Hudson (almost four!) saw clouds and rain in Los Angeles, two things he hadn’t experienced in a quarter of his life.

“What are those things moving on the window?”

“Windscreen wipers.”

“Why’s there smoke in the sky?“

“They’re clouds.“

“What’s this water everywhere?“

“It’s rain.“

“Why aren’t we moving?”

“Because LA drivers don’t know how to drive in the rain.”

“Why?“

On it continued the entire damn way to school.

Children are naturally curious, and question-asking is a direct manifestation of that curiosity. Everything is new and they are seeing things with a beginner’s mind. This is a by-product of evolution – a child uninterested in learning about the world will not survive for long. Hudson’s question-asking – while bloody tiresome – is of course important for his development.

One study⁠ suggests that a typical pre-schooler asks 300 to 400 questions per day – 30 questions per waking hour. In the car that day Hudson asked that number in five minutes. As a society we are starting to wake up to the importance of fostering curiosity. Today, parenting best practice encourages prompting our kids, “what was a good question you asked today?” instead of “what did you learn today?”

However, something tragic soon starts happening around the school-age years. Warren Berger, researcher and author of A More Beautiful Question⁠, discovered that the number of questions children ask dramatically declines upon entering school. The reasons for this make sense – questions need time to be answered properly (don’t I know that), and this can be impractical for elementary teachers who manage larger numbers of students than pre-school teachers. In later school years, proactive question-asking may not be considered cool by peers.

At least in the Australian school system I experienced, we were spoon-fed information and drilled facts by rote. At no point did my school teach us to challenge what we were taught, to think independently or to encourage curiosity. At no point were we taught how to ask critical questions.

A tendency to over-pack children’s lives with activities can lead to a rushed existence – and this addiction to busyness carries on into adulthood. If you can barely keep up with a jammed schedule, curiosity and question-asking soon becomes a luxury that is overlooked.

As adults in the workplace environment, asking questions may be interpreted by peers as a sign of unintelligence or lack of understanding. “As we know more, or feel we know more, we may be less inclined to question,” said Berger at the Innovative Learning Conference⁠. It’s no surprise then that the average number of questions that adults ask is under 10 a day.

A study from McKinsey revealed that 84% of chief executives value innovation as an extremely important part of their growth strategy. Yet many executives also worry that their organization’s internal culture is holding back their ability to innovate. ‘Creating a more innovative culture’ was listed as one of the top three concerns in a recent survey from The Conference Board.

As marketers, by definition we should be at the forefront of innovation. Understanding key human truths about our consumers. Creating products that focus on these insights and meet their needs. Positioning our products via promotions that truly resonate.

To do this effectively, marketers need to be curious about the world. We need to dream big. We need to inspire change. We need to innovate in our work, and in the personal way we view the world around us.

I’ve always defined personal innovation as a mindset focused on constantly identifying and testing ingrained assumptions about our world – I call these inherited limitations. And the way to develop an innovative mindset to overcome these limitations is simple. Be curious. Ask questions. Test assumptions. Take action.

So, I challenge you all to reflect upon this; what was a good question you asked today?

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