The way we talk about our problems says a lot about how likely we are to solve them creatively. When we state a problem as a fact, it becomes a heavy weight. For instance: Nobody’s been able to model the XXX process. Indeed, that’s a problem. It’s also a negative statement – already a downer – and it doesn’t lead to any ideas. It’s a static problem.
A productive problem is one that’s phrased as a question: How might we understand how to model this process? It asks you to wonder about the problem, and even suggests other questions: In what ways is it like other processes that we can model? How might we understand and model aspect of it piece by piece? A problem posed as a question invites ideas that might be a solution. Not even just one solution; an open-ended, wondering question hints that there might be many approaches that could work.
This subtle shift in language provokes our thinking and makes our brain more nimble. Instead of complaining about what doesn’t work or isn’t happening, the problem posed as a question starts a chain reaction that ignites our curiosity. We realise it’s not so much about naming the problem, it’s more about wondering what are all the problems embedded in the challenge and what are all the ways to address it.
This is cultivating a wondering mind, letting curiosity be the driver of your creative process.
We know it’s useful to pose problems as questions, but it could be a more effective way to articulate solutions, too. A Scientific American article about the Paradox of Willpower cites a study by the University of Illinois psychologist Ibrahim Senay. He tested the notion that goal setting might be a less effective way to achieve change (i.e. implement a new idea) than simply wondering about the future with an open question:
He had a group of volunteers work on a series of anagrams—changing the word “sauce” to “cause,” for example, or “when” to “hewn.” But before starting this task, half the volunteers were told to contemplate whether they would work on anagrams, while the others simply thought about the fact that they would be doing anagrams in a few minutes. The difference is subtle, but the former were basically putting their mind into wondering mode, while the latter were asserting themselves and their will. It is the difference between “Will I do this?” and “I will do this.”
Asserting intentions about a goal, Senay found out, might actually be limiting. Keeping an open mind can “enhance feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation, creating a mindset that promotes success.” Senay determined that people with questioning minds are more intrinsically motivated to change. That would mean that cultivating a wondering mind might improve not only your ability to invite new solutions, but to succeed at implementing them as well.
The value of curious thinking and questioning is becoming more apparent at business schools, too. Over the last decade, in addition to the staple curriculum of finance, accounting and marketing, courses about integrative thinking and design thinking have become critical elements of the current MBA degree. Business leaders today need to be more holistic and responsive to the current environment and its challenges, rather than being entirely goal-driven. The competency that these business schools are trying to develop: inquisitiveness and curiosity, the elements of wondering.
But you don’t need a business degree to learn how to wonder, all you need is an open mind and the willingness (not the will) to remain curious through every step of the creative process.
Know further: An article about Wonder-talk considers the difference between opening up and sizing up. Or here’s a book about the Art of Wondering.