How to Ask a Better Question

When I first started my creative coaching, I was working with a TV station whose news numbers were very low compared to the competition. i remember taking a group of executives into a brainstorming session and separating them into four or five smaller teams of five peo ple or so (see Chapter 19 for tips on group brainstorming). I began by posing questions about how to improve the news — questions that made them stretch their minds:

How do we do a newscast in one minute?

How do we do a newscast with no anchors?

How do we do a newscast with no sound?

How do we do a newscast for 24 hours with no repeats?

This Ask a Better Question process forced them into places where they didn't "know" the answers. If you look at the questions, you'll see that a lot of the answers I was trying to elicit were graphical in nature. In a short amount of time you have to get a lot of data on the screen. If there's no audio, you have to get data on the screen. If you have no anchors, there has to be something on the screen.

Little did I know how prophetic was my exercise. If you look at newscasts today compared to 10 to 15 years ago, the whole industry has gone in that direction. People are quicker on the uptake today and take in greater amounts of data with more ease than ever before. The whole world is more graphic today, more jam-packed with information. Just look at a 30-year-old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Andy Griffith Show. Things move faster, there's more editing, more information jammed in. I bet if you did a word count on dialogue in today's sitcoms versus those of 30 years ago, you'd find about 30 percent more words. But I digress.

These TV station executives glimpsed the future when they stretched their minds. By not looking at how things "are," they clarified their forward vision.

Well, there is some good news, some bad news, and some sad news in the outcome to this story. The good news is that the TV station made some changes and soon overtook their nearest competitor in the ratings war. The bad news is that they got cold feet on immediate implementation of many of the leading-edge ideas that emerged from this brainstorming session. The sad news is that the general manager of this TV station, the visionary who was leading the charge, died suddenly. The station has been mired in poor ratings ever since, currently under their fourth general manager in six years.

Many of the ideas we came up with in that session are commonplace today. The news ticker on the bottom of the screen. Time and temperature in the lower corner. The station logo as a permanent bug in the other corner, and so on. This group saw the future when they stretched their thinking, thanks to Ask a Better Question. You can, too!

Cheat Notes for Chapter 5: Ask a Better Question

The mind is capable of imagining much more than "what you know," particularly if encouraged to do so by a probing question.

Probing questions offer no choice but to push your mind to a place you've never been before, a place of wonder where wonderful things can happen.

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Cause yourself to stretch anytime by placing the solution just out of reach, by posing a question in such a manner that you don't know the answer.

You can ask a better question at any point in time during the creative process.

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