Curiosity, Questioning and Creativity: The trinity of innovative thinking

Einstein remarked that he wasn’t cleverer than most – he simply had a stronger tendency to stay curious. While his curiosity was applied to the natural order and the physics of existence, this propensity can also be directed by us in the professional world. Being curious about what’s new, or about ideas that start in the peripheral vision of mainstream thinking before being widely accepted, it’s clear that a searching, open - minded approach to novel thinking is a precursor to readily embracing more creative solutions.

Then there’s curiosity about people. I often sit at a business dinner, learning a lot about what makes people tick, at the same time realising that most, especially in the reserved British culture, have neither the inclination or the skills to unearth deeper insight into the minds of others. They seem afraid to question much beyond the surface of a conversation. The key is to know and use the different kind of questions, which are the gateway to human curiosity and creativity.

“Quest” is the first syllable of the word, which implies that you want to explore and find out something unknown to you. Either for its own sake – remember this can be relationship-building, and you become more interesting to others by being interested - or to discover new ways of thinking to learn from. The starting point is to use open-ended probes like:

How do you mean?"

What more can you say about this?

Why do you believe this?

Elementary, my dear Watson! And yet I’m amazed how many people - especially men - appear to have mislaid this key. They are happier on ’transmit’ rather than ‘receive’ mode!


Types of Questions

Other questions include:

*The Commercial Question.

One of the best examples is a Lexus executive’s query: “What do you do in a world where all cars start?” This triggered the search to give the consumer a new variable by which to rate a car manufacturer - a clearly differentiated service experience, rather than focussing on the reliability of the product. The quality revolution worked – it’s why your vehicle, TV or dishwasher goes wrong at a fraction of the rate it did 30 years ago. It’s nothing to shout about any more.

The question triggered a line of creative thought that resulted in Lexus outselling BMW and Mercedes a few short years after it arrived in the USA.


*The Scientific Question.

Dr Pincus was one of the discoverers of the birth control pill. He advanced the progress of this drug by asking a strange question- “How could a woman who is pregnant not be pregnant?” The answer was medication that simulated pregnancy. It was this peculiar question that opened the doors for the discovery.


*The (useful) Hypothetical Question

My kids have given rhetorical questions a bad name, enjoying conundrums like, ‘Would you rather drown in a vat of oil or be hung, drawn and quartered by a pirate crew?’ Who says children are innocent?

The more useful kind of hypothetical questioning here is to start with:

“What if?” or

“Why not?”

This allows you to run a valuable thought experiment. ‘What if we did everything virtually?’ ‘Why not let workers set their own pay?’

You may end up with something less radical in the end, but the hypothetical helps you escape from the straitjacket of convention.


*The miracle question

This was developed by a psychologist many years ago. ‘What if your problems were solved – what would it feel like?’ Coming up with a state where challenges are resolved helps you to envision a better future – from which you can work backwards to plan the steps needed to make it a reality.


As the song goes, ‘there are more questions than answers,’ and formulating them wisely can unlock a more creative view of the situation.

Creativity means bringing something into being that wasn’t there before, whether it’s an improvement of an existing idea (adaption) or a wholly new take (innovation.) Above all, it’s having the courage and beginner’s mindset to see the world anew. As Marcel Proust observed,

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Those ‘eyes’ can be sharpened and widened by having a curious and questioning outlook. Like a child, but with a much bigger database of possible solutions that become apparent when you begin to rewire your brain, through the quest for what’s novel, wild and different. Try beginning with a daily dose of ‘why?’ Why do I approach my work this way? What if I didn’t do this at all?

You will almost certainly unlock a different view than the one you started with. Curiosity and Questioning are the seedbeds for creativity to sprout.