Friday, March 14, 2014

Issues of Inquiry, Innovation and Trust

One of the hardest things I found to teach people during my now concluded career was to ask questions, or more importantly, the questions behind a question.  Many preferred to waste effort instead on trying to decipher or guess what I wanted.

The reason this makes a difference is covered in a new book published this month by Warren Berger entitled A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.  In one section, the book describes why some people stop asking questions.

As I did at that age when my dad nicknamed me “windy” for a time, researchers find that in a three year span from the ages of two to five, children ask about 40,000 questions.  Starting with preschool, however, the number of questions asked drops off a cliff.

This is when people begin to worry more about asking the “right” questions and when the divide widens between those with a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset.  Researcher Dr. Carol Dweck points to this difference, all things being equal, when some students are stymied by failure and others thrive.

Berger even talks about replacing mission statements with questions.  For example, Pandora, the popular music streaming service might have one that says, “what if we could map the DNA of music?”  Square’s might be “why can’t everyone accept credit cards?”

Questions, this overview shows, are more important than statements, more important than answers.  In my former career in visitor-centric economic development, it would be “how can increased visitation foster unique sense of place?”

The secret to innovation in the workplace is to hire people who inherently question why they are doing things the way they do, who seek “continual and never-ending improvement.”

In a recent blog, Seth Godwin suggests that marketers should focus on the one question, “do they trust me enough to believe my promises?”  In other words, “can you and will you deliver on your brand?”

Berger, who I followed over my career when he wrote often for numerous marketing publications about creativity, cites the book by Harvard researcher Dr. Paul L. Harris entitled, Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others.

You have to earn trust.  As Godwin writes – “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”  A few weeks before "A More Beautiful Question” was published, I read another new book entitled, The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning and More.

It is written by Dr. David DeSteno, a researcher at Northeastern University who previously authored Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.

“Trust then,” DeSteno writes, “is a bet, and like all bets, it contains an element of risk.”  He notes that “at the most basic level, the need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable,” open to uncertainty.

I’ve literally spent my entire life learning to trust.  The day I was born, I began to decline.  The first few months were a struggle as my parents tried a range of formulas to not only get me to gain weight but to stem the almost constant projectile vomit.

That first deep winter on the ancestral Idaho ranch that was our home in that nook pointed into Yellowstone Park between Montana and the Teton’s shared with Wyoming, a family miracle occurred.

One day when my dad went down into the cellar for another can of formula, none could be found where it had been resupplied the day before.  So in desperation my parents fed me “whole” cows milk and almost immediately I began to thrive.  As a result, my wiring was left with a sense of hyper-vigilance and a fragile sense of trust overall.

Most individual breaches of trust, when we are adults, DeSteno writes, “though unwelcome don’t necessarily make one feel universally vulnerable.” 

I survived those first six months with both an indomitable drive and a near universal, subliminal vulnerability.

In part, along with my parent’s love, character and trustworthiness, this primal experience fueled success, more professional than personal.  In the words of Dr. Harris in an interview with the Boston Globe about why asking questions is so important for children cognitively:

“…it seems likely that this [asking questions] is an incredibly important engine for cognitive development.

…The child has to first realize that they don’t know something...and that other people are information-bearing agents…Then the child has to be able to, somehow or other, realize that language is a tool for shifting stuff from that person to them.”

I got my share of “just because” and “because I told you so’s,” but overall my parents always made it safe to ask questions and fostered a sense of inquiry and imagination.

Reading The Truth About Trust, more than six and a half decades later helps me not only realize how far I’ve finally come in being able to isolate failures of trust by others but also how much pain I may have caused others over the years when I didn’t.

So my personal mission statement in the form of A More Beautiful Question has not been being creative and innovative, traits with which I am often credited professionally, but “Can trust be learned on a deep personal level?”

Gratefully, my answer is that it sure can.

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