Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question” is a Worthwhile Read

Berger’s examination of inquiry shows us where beautiful questions can lead

February 13, 2024 | Denise Gifford

One question can make all the difference: asking the right question can get to the heart of the matter, paving the way for innovation and problem-solving. But what makes a question effective? How can we find and ask the most important questions? In his book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, author Warren Berger encourages us to discover and develop our question-asking skills and to ask what he calls “beautiful questions,” a phrase inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem.

Berger, a journalist by trade, has an affinity for the art of the question. He’s studied hundreds of leading innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers from all around the world. Berger argues that their greatest successes can be “traced to a question (or a series of questions) they’d formulated and then answered.” It’s this process of innovative questioning that’s at the center of A More Beautiful Question. Berger defines a beautiful question as “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” These questions can be the foundation of successful business ideas. Berger weaves such success stories throughout his book.

One example is Van Phillips, an amputee who was frustrated by the lack of quality prosthetics that were available. He wondered: “if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?” His inquiry led to the development of the Cheetah prosthetic foot, used by Paralympics participants, most notably Oscar Pistorius in the Olympic Games. In another example that Berger explores, Bob Kearns, a mechanical engineer, was driving in the rain when he asked himself: “what if a car windshield could blink?” Car wipers at the time could only operate at one speed. Kearns wondered why wipers couldn’t work more like eyelids, blinking (or wiping) as much or as little as needed. His beautiful question and relentless drive led to the invention of intermittent windshield wipers.

Then there’s the tale of the invention of Liquid Paper, which was developed in answer to the question: “what if we could paint over our mistakes?” Prior to its invention, typewriter ribbons made it difficult to correct errors; the ink was hard to erase. Bette Nesmith Graham, a bank secretary, asked herself if there might be a way to simply paint over typos. She began experimenting with different paint solutions, and the rest is history.

But if questions are the source of innovation and enhanced problem-solving, why don’t we make better use of them? What causes us to shy away from asking the big questions? As children, we are incessant questioners. Berger notes that as we get older, we often lose our childlike ability to ask “beautiful” questions. Thankfully, it’s a skill that can be relearned.

One way to do this is through a “Why/What If/How?” framework, says Berger. This helps the questioner move from divergent to convergent, from broad to specific, from the big picture to the actionable. Berger says we must also “question the question” to help ensure our questions don’t have built-in assumptions and biases. We need to ask ourselves: “is there a better question?” And “why am I asking this question?” Effective questioning, after all, is the crux of critical thinking.

Although Berger originally published this book in 2014, it’s an evergreen title that remains a thought-provoking, worthwhile read. In some ways, this exploration of inquiry has become more pertinent. In the age of AI, Berger’s admonition to test your question is essential. As artificial intelligence works its way into more aspects of our lives, we need to know how to ask better questions, ones that help us make the best use of AI’s amazing capacity.

Berger organizes the book into a questioning exercise of its own. Each chapter heading is a question: “Why does stepping back help us move forward?”, “How might we create a culture of inquiry?”, and “What if you made one small change?” are examples of the many subheadings in the book. There are vignettes throughout that describe how a specific, beautiful question led to a new invention or solved a problem. Berger is asking us to pay attention; he sees the power of the question and wants us to observe it in action.

The heart of this book is its conviction that inquiry sparks innovation. A More Beautiful Question shines in its stories of how questions drive creativity and problem-solving. As I read each example, I wondered: “Would I have known enough to come up with that question? And would I have asked it?”

And this is the real value of the book; it prompts and encourages us to be braver, to think outside the box, and to think deeply about where our questions can lead us. The process of reading the book is an unexpected confidence-builder, a way to get inspiration from others and to imagine what we can do. It’s not a treatise on question construction, although that may be implied by the title. Instead, Berger leaves it up to us to create our own beautiful questions, and through trial and error, to make our inquiries the best they can be.

If this book only made us more aware of questions and why they are important, Berger would have done something valuable. But he takes it further than that. Berger wants us to stretch our minds, to have the imagination and the nerve to ask the big, beautiful questions. They’re the ones that will really make a difference.

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas           (paid link)

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is the managing editor of InfoWorks.com. She co-founded InfoWorks International, a consulting firm that trained thousands worldwide in project management, leadership, and related business skills. Prior to heading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.