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To ask or not to ask, that is the question

Recently, Bart De Hantsetters, President of the Syndicate of Belgian Diamond Manufacturers (SBD), advised his members to spend some time during their summer vacation to read “A more beautiful question, the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas”, by innovation expert Warren Berger. Here are some of his conclusions and insights to what the diamond industry and trade can learn from this book.

In my editorial and message to our members toward the summer holidays, I proposed the above mentioned book as recommended reading, as I am convinced that this work offers important insights and direction to anyone who wishes for our industry to continue to prosper in the years to come. Here are some of my take-aways from this book.

A More Beautiful Question, The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,” by innovation expert Warren Berger, is all about the power of questioning, or otherwise put, asking the right questions. Berger discovered that top business people and innovative thinkers behind groundbreaking ideas like Netflix, Airbnb or the Theory of Relativity are often very different, yet they all share one specific trait; one by one, they are all expert questioners. By using real life examples from various creative geniuses, Berger demonstrates why it is so important to ask the right questions. And just to be clear, we are not talking about Google here. In this Google-era of ours, we do ask more questions than ever before, just not the right questions! This book is not about the sort of questions Google can guess which question you wanted to ask before you have even finished typing. And don’t worry, this is not about life’s great questions either. It is about questions that call for very practical, tangible answers, or as Berger calls them, “a more beautiful question.”

Asking questions

Asking questions is something we do naturally as a child, but we are literally taught not to. Those of you who have children will recognise what I mean when I refer to the “why” age. It is proven scientifically that the average four-year-old asks about 390 questions every day. But what is remarkable, by the age of five or six, most of us have reached their questioning peak. It is all downhill from there. Our schools, but also parents and as societies do not encourage asking questions. Why? (There we go, I’m asking a question) When children, and later students, employees or simply people start asking questions, it is often considered as something uncomfortable or unpleasant.

That is a comprehensible reaction. Scientific research demonstrates we very often put our brains on auto pilot. That is much easier and therefore, at least that is what we think, much more efficient. By putting our mental force on pause we can save on mental energy which improves our ability to multitask. Stop what you’re doing for a minute and consider how often you switch to automatic mode in your everyday life and, more importantly, in your professional life. How much time is there in your company to question your business strategy, to ask whether you can improve something, or why you are handling certain things the way you do?

Asking the right questions

Berger argues that, especially in the business world, the real danger is that one’s focus is entirely on “doing things,” that asking the right questions (“why are we doing this”) is skipped or ignored entirely, because it consumes too much of our precious time. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yet asking the right questions allows us to identify opportunities, to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, before our competitors do. The common denominator in all the successful endeavours the writer lists is precisely that asking the right questions can lead to radical, turbo-charged change.

Berger also points to the danger of the “experts”. We tend to be stuck in our bubble, we “know everything” and “we do what we do.”

That is precisely what characterises our industry. How many of us aren’t convinced that we are the only experts, negating any other answers than those we already have provided ourselves. There is no doubt that expertise and experience play an important role in our industry, but that shouldn’t stop us from – let’s start with that question – questioning if we are asking enough questions at all. We are so caught up in our own little world and everything we know that we don’t allow ourselves to ask questions. That is fine for as long as the world around doesn’t change. But, needless to say, that is not the case!

There is no “someone else”

Berger is right when he says that strangely enough, we tend to believe that “someone else” can and should solve our problems. Someone smarter, more capable or with more resources. This particular point reminds me of the arguments we often hear in our industry, when we talk about the challenges our industry is facing. By default, we believe it is up to somebody else to get the job done. “Someone” must generically promote our product. “Someone” must ensure access to bank accounts and financing. “Someone” should accomplish more sales for all. Again, this reflex is understandable, and I have said this before, unfair situations, especially the refusal of banks, cannot be justified. But the point is, that “someone” does not exist. If we want to tackle the issues we are facing, we need to do something ourselves. And asking the right questions would be a good starting point.

Furthermore, Berger inquires - you guessed right, by asking the right question - in his book, more specifically: “if asking questions is so efficient, why aren’t we all doing it more?” In other words, what it is that makes the whole concept of questioning so difficult?

A threat to those in power

To enable asking the right questions, means to cede control, power if you will. Because asking questions also literally means you question a status quo.

And that’s where the difficulty lies. In hierarchically structured organisations and companies, asking questions is perceived as something that will have negative consequences, both for those who ask the questions as for those who are asked questions. Questioners are often considered insubordinate or ignorant, or in the worst case, both. Let’s be honest, in this institutionalised industry of ours, that is a difficult area.

The fear of losing power, or the established order sometimes has a paralysing effect. To kick in an open door, change is rarely easy nor fast, but it is most certainly better than continuing to do what we do, just because we are used to doing it.

I’ll leave it up to you to discover what happens next in the book, but I am firmly convinced our industry could use a strong dose of sunshine, rest … and asking questions.

This slightly adapted article was originally published as an editorial in the Spring 2017 issue of SBD’s quarterly house magazine, De Belgische Diamantnijverheid.

About Bart de Hantsetters

Bart De Hantsetters is Managing Director of Diamcad NV, a leading Antwerp-based, Belgian diamond manufacturer specialized in large size high value diamonds. He is president of the Belgian Diamond Manufacturers Association (SBD), is a member of the Diamond club of Antwerp and holds a seat on the board of the WTOCD – the Belgian Diamond Research Center.