It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. EUGENE IONESCO, Decouvertes, 1969.

In America, at least, literal thinking is about all the educational system is perfectly good at teaching.1 I believe it needs to change, and I think it would be interesting/rewarding to craft a college-level (business school) course around the subject of questioning/creativity.  Simply asked, what topics should be covered?

A bit of background.  With the accelerating pace of change and volatility in business today,2 more emphasis out to be put on helping students zig when others zag.  At its root, creativity is about questioning; putting structure on something as yet without definition.3  Of course, first there needs to be recognition that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Here are a few topics (tips, tricks and techniques) to help jump start some comments:

Minds Eye: Empathy is crucial in helping nurture perspective.  What would a legalistic, artistic, scientific, religious or bureaucratic perspective bring to the topic?

Picturing: Human brains think in pictures; words are mere abstractions -  1) Portrait for a “who” or “What” problem; 2) Chart for a “What” problem; 3) Map for a “Where” problem; 4) Timeline for a “When” problem; 5) Flowchart for a “How” problem; 6) Multi-variable Plot for a “Why” problem.

Solution Thinking: We’re hard wired to think solutions, not necessarily to ponder what’s going on.  What are the seven deadly sins of solution thinking?  How does one get beyond them?4

1 In America, standardized testing and the ACT/SAT are but two examples which illustrate how our entire educational system is geared toward finding the right answer.  And this week, on the radio, I heard the Philadelphia school system is proposing a minimum score of 50 for all students on all tests, whether or not the pupil answers any questions correctly.  In an age where even big corporations and their mighty CEO’s can’t control their own destiny, instead of preparing students to search for the right answers (or not if you are raised in Philadelphia) shouldn’t we at least spend as much time helping them learn how to ask the right questions?

2 In the book It’s Alive by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, they highlight some compelling statistics regarding both the exponential nature of change and the volatility within business:
•    The number of Fortune 300 CEOs with six years tenure decreased from 57% in 1980 to 37% in 2001.
•    In 1978 about 10,000 firms were failing annually.  By 1986 about 60,000 firms were failing.  By 1998 that figure had risen to over 73,000 annually.
•    From 1950-2000 variability in S&P 500 stock prices increased more than 10-fold; from 1950 through the 1970s, days on which the market fluctuated by more than 3% happened less than twice a year, whereas in the last few years it has happened twice a month.
•    The number of firms that take “special items” in their accounting has grown dramatically; for instance, “special losses” from S&P 500 firms grew from 68 in 1982 to 233 in 2000.  (Special Items are, by definition, an admission of being caught flat-footed by change more volatile than the normal course of the business cycle.)

3 Which, as it so happens, is one definition of the word question.  What are other definitions that would inform a discussion?

4 Mathew May has an excellent Change This manifesto entitled Mind of the Innovator (Taming the traps of traditional thinking).