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Review: The Power of Why by Amanda Lang

This review first ran in the Nov. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Why

By Amanda Lang

HarperCollins

$29

Nothing’s quite as painful or predictable as the deadly silence that follows the end of a presentation at work.

With much enthusiasm and in great detail, a project leader has just pitched a bold and brilliant plan to solve a problem or seize an opportunity for your organization. The presentation ends with an open invitation to ask questions.

If we’re not drifting off or texting away, we’re checking the clock and praying for an early exit. We shoot daggers at colleagues who appear tempted to ask questions if only to hear the sound of their voices and remind us that they’re the smartest ones in the room.

But what if we went to the next presentation and acted like a bunch of three year olds?

What if we all put up our hands to ask questions?

What if we fearlessly asked the obvious and dumb questions that everyone’s thinking?

What if we admitted that we didn’t understand three-quarters of what we just heard?

And what if we found the courage to ask whether we’ve come up with a bold and brilliant solution to the wrong problem?

Chances are, we’d become a far more innovative organization.

“As a business journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot of people who’ve come up with a new product or service, or who’ve found a new way to run an organization,” says Amanda Lang, author of The Power of Why, co-chost of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and senior business correspondent with CBC News.

“The main difference between them and the rest of us is that they ask more and better questions, and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are at first not what they wanted or expected to find. They have less in common with Einstein, frankly, than with young children.”

Kids are naturally curious, says Lang. They ignore conventional wisdom and love to figure things out for themselves.  They question, challenge and test everything.

So what happens to those kids? Lang says they head off to school where we do a spectacular job of educating them out of their curiosity.

As one researcher puts it, we’ve adopted a pedagogy of intellectual hide and seek. The teacher holds all the right answers. It’s up to the students to find the answers, memorize them and parrot them back.

“As the educational system is currently constructed, the right answer, not the cheeky question, gets the gold star – and the faster you get that answer, the better,” says Lang.

“While teachers value innovative thinking in the abstract, in reality, they tell researchers that the kids they like the least are the ones they also rate as the most curious and creative. These are the kinds of children who are forever taking the class off track with their questions and observations. The kids whom teachers like the most, according to a growing body of research, are the compliant, polite, predictable ones. The kids who don’t pose challenges.”

Lang says the same dynamic of rewarding right answers, punishing wrong answers and not recognizing good questions repeats in the workplace.

“There are real or perceived disincentives to asking questions. A lot of people worry about revealing they don’t know something; they want to look like experts, not ignoramuses. There’s the fear of asking a dumb question, one that everyone else in the room knows the answer to, one that would make the questioner look pretty foolish.”

But here’s the problem. If you want innovation, you have to be curious. You need to ask a lot of questions, challenge assumptions and work through a lot of wrong answers.

“There isn’t a story of innovation or progress that doesn’t involve multiple false starts and flubs,” says Lang.

Our economy is driven by innovation. Our prosperity rests on the constant discovery of better products and services and smarter ways to get the job done.

Innovation also renders obsolete much of what we already know.

“The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence,” says Lang. “The main thing that a student needs to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future.”

So that’s our challenge in our schools, at work and on the home front. We need to do a far better job of fostering, recognizing and rewarding curiosity and divergent thinking.

For inspiration, Lang profiles some exceptional innovators, from the creator of a table saw that won’t amputate your fingers to four young women who turned a soccer ball into a power source for children and families living in developing countries.

Lang’s book will help you rediscover the three-year-old version of yourself who was so fearlessly and insatiably curious.

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