Imagine Elon Musk, globally revered as one of the greatest living entrepreneurs, sits down with you. What’s the one creative skill he’d suggest you learn to be the best founder you can be? Chances are, it’s how to ask the right question.
Musk believes, “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.”
Musk says he finds inspiration in the shower, in the middle of the night, and out with friends. Pretty normal, right? It’s what he does after that which makes all the difference. You can use the same approach. Asking the right questions is a skill that can be learned, according to Warren Berger, bestselling author of A More Beautiful Question.
Berger says when he mentors that, “Oftentimes there may not be a right question. You know you’re asking a good question when you get sort of a rise out of people. That’s a good starting point.” Then, he says, getting your question in the world for feedback is the next step. The results of gaining feedback on the question, possibly through a demo or other minimum viable product, will help you understand if the question is ‘the right question’–or not.
Musk’s process for asking the right question
Musk recalls that his first questions as a founder were pretty mundane, like, how can I make enough money to live and still have time for games and computers? His first few companies, like Zip2 and X.com, were designed to make money. As he got more money, he got frustrated with how money was transferred, and that led to PayPal. Today, the market cap of Tesla is around $40 billion and SpaceX is estimated at $15 billion. As Musk’s founder questions have gotten better, his companies have gotten bigger. “To the degree we better understand the universe, then we know which questions to ask,” he says.
How the right question led to SpaceX
Although we think of SpaceX as a bold success in process, it actually started from failure of another of Musk’s questions. He believed we could colonize Mars if we solved the food-away-from-Earth problem. He figured Martian greenhouses were the answer. “I spent several hundred thousand dollars just getting the design worked out and engaging companies . . . and then it came to buying the rocket.” What he learned was, rockets were a few million dollars–each. Musk said at that rate, he didn’t have the budget for the greenhouse project. “At that rocket price, the math just wasn’t working.”
So Musk asked another question–why are rockets so expensive? “I came to the conclusion that there was really no good reason for rockets to cost so much, and they could be less . . . a lot less. If one could make them reusable, like planes, the cost of space travel would drop dramatically. The cost of the fuel was .2 to .5 percent of the cost of the rocket, kind of like the plane.” In fact, “Nobody had been able to make a reasonable rocket work–and I thought, if we can do that, that would be a breakthrough for space travel.” SpaceX was born.
Like with SpaceX, the right question focuses you on the right problem–which is often a key choke point in your industry
Musk used creative questions to spark the company that became SolarCity (now Tesla Energy), too. He says, “People weren’t focusing on the right problem. People were focusing on the panel. It’s a problem–but it’s not the most important problem . . . the thorny problem is, how to get solar on the tops of millions of buildings?” Solar roof tiles are his latest answer–not a panel in sight.
How to ask your own creative questions
Joi Ito, head of MIT Media Lab, entrepreneur, investor, and board member at the The New York Times and at Sony, has studied innovation for decades. He’s a big fan of asking critical creative questions as a founder, because he says the model of how the human race learns is changing. “It’s a time of exponential change, so things are different every day. The old model of learning–that you do a lot of it when you’re young and then become an adult who doesn’t learn as much–that just doesn’t work as a productive way of living now. You have to learn new things all the time. And you learn by being curious and by questioning.”
Ito says it take courage and confidence to learn to ask questions well. “A lot of times, if you’re sitting there and you think about something in the bathtub, you might say, ‘Oh, I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it’–and then you stop thinking about it. But the world is changing so fast and so much, every day, that things that weren’t true in the past are true now–so you should assume that what you’re thinking may actually be an original idea and pursue it.”
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