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Why we should embrace ‘radical curiosity’ and learn to ask better questions

Asking good questions is extraordinarily valuable, and yet many of us are uncomfortable doing so, says author Seth Goldenberg.

Why we should embrace ‘radical curiosity’ and learn to ask better questions
[Photo: Ilona Nagy/Getty Images]

If you spend time with children, you know they ask a lot of questions. They’re curious by nature, and it’s how they grow. Somewhere along the line, however, we adults trade in our drive for learning with a strive to be right. Certainty is more desirable than curiosity because it reinforces your believes and doesn’t force you to change.

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Seth Goldenberg, author of Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures, calls curiosity an endangered species. “We like stability, and we like to know the variables, but that’s not how real-life works,” he says. “It’s not how progress or positive impact can scale.”

If there was a good outcome of the pandemic, Goldenberg says it’s that it rocked us to the core and forced us to question the various operating models we’d been using for a long time and couldn’t conceive of disrupting. It led to the Great Resignation and a great reinvention of ourselves and many of our social systems.

“We’re in a rare moment where we are looking at the system in a fundamentally new way,” says Goldenberg. “The world has become quite complex, and we’re experiencing what we call a ‘society-level operating system reboot.’ The values that we live by are getting rewritten. Culture is going through an operating system reboot, like a Safari reinstall. And a renaissance comes after an existential crisis.”

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Yet, Goldenberg wonders why people aren’t stopping to ask even more questions. “Why is curiosity not more prevalent?” he asks. “Curiosity is fundamental to the human condition and we’re squandering it. Much of the large-scale organizations, enterprises, and social systems are still filled with pre-determined answers. It’s fascinating how uncomfortable we are asking questions.”

Asking essential questions

Goldenberg says great questions can yield extraordinary value. In fact, all innovation and all significant transformative insights begin from a great question. He developed a methodology to help leaders ask essential questions, which he calls being radically curious.

“‘Radical’ coming from the Latin root of radicalis, which means the roots of things, to question our assumptions,” he says. “Radical curiosity begins with asking better questions.”

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For example, the United States spent $4.1 trillion, approximately $12,530 per citizen, on healthcare in 2020, which is more than double the per capita spending of countries like Sweden, Austria, and Germany.

Instead of asking how to pay this bill, an essential question might be, “Why are we spend more than $3 trillion every single year on something that, overall, does not produce great outcomes? Answering this question requires defining what exactly it means to be healthy in the 21st century,” says Goldenberg.

“Essential questions invite us to revisit ideas we have taken for granted,” says Goldenberg. “They challenge us to reconsider what we know, to look at the familiar with fresh eyes to see something new.”

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Essential questions also challenge us to get to the root of why things happen rather than what things happened allowing for a wider range of contributing variables. They push us to look for unexpected connections that can unlock transformation. They are the foundation of curiosity.

Getting started

Being action-oriented is often adopted like a badge of honor and articulated as a good thing. But if you move into action too quickly, you may not have even asked a question at all. Essential questions require you to slow down.

“When an opportunity or a directive comes our way, many of us leap right into action and into a solution,” says Goldenberg. “We don’t stop to say, ‘Where is where is this coming from? What is the context? What is the key question that is driving this? What are the assumptions that are constraining how to solve the problem?’ The mistake is moving too fast and not peeling back those assumptions. Action isn’t always the best thing to do. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to do nothing right away.”

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At Goldenberg’s innovation consulting studio, Epic Decade, his team has a saying: “Slow down to speed up.” This reminds them that “slowing down is a way to speed up because you get closer to the real question underneath,” he says.

Ideally, leaders should serve as a model and ask more essential questions to instill a culture of curiosity. However, it’s a role anyone in a company can and should adopt, says Goldenberg.

“One thing that happened in the rethink of the employee experience is that employees now see that they have more power than they understood they had before,” he says. “It can’t be chaos, but I think the best and most purposeful organizations are welcoming the co-creation, the co-authorship, the cooperative architecture of what comes next for their future.”

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About the author

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who covers productivity, careers, and leadership. She's written for Fast Company since 2014, and her byline has appeared in several other leading publications and websites

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