Questions are the new answers...

One of the most significant shifts I've noticed over the past two decades is that questions have become the new answers. Let me explain by pointing out that, like many of you, I grew up before the internet. If I had a question about something, there was only a few options of where I could turn for answers. There was the school library which had, amongst other books, a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. While at home we had the more budget version - the World Book Encyclopedia (complete with the 'Year Book' updates that were sent out each year). Answers were relatively difficult to come across and expensive. Even simple things like working out movie session times involved a trip to buy the newspaper. The relative cost of answers meant that you were very careful in the questions you asked, and relatively trusting in the material presented.

I never thought to question the information in our trusty World Book encyclopedia despite it being highly likely to be out of date.  I remember the exact moment that all changed in High School. I was sitting in a physics class and we started discussing things that weren't clear from modern physics (well, 'modern' physics as it was at the time!). We started with light, and discovered that it was kind of like a wave and kind of like a particle. We then moved onto electrons which could be thought to orbit around a nucleus, but could also be thought to be a 'cloud' around the nucleus of an atom. Checking the World Book didn't reveal the answers to these big questions. I had to rely on my teacher and the particular text book we were given. Education was basically about cramming kids full of as many answers as possible.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the internet changed everything. I remember the moment I first saw the internet in action. A friend was studying computer science and had brought home a modem. After plugging it in and surviving the string of seemingly random squeaks and squawks as the modem connected over the phone line, he then accessed 'the Internet'. We loaded up a live picture of a coffee pot at a university in America (presumably to save the IT nerds at that university from making a fruitless trip to the coffee pot should it be empty). The grainy black and white image took minutes to load, but I still remember shaking my head in disbelief and saying "that is the most amazing thing I have ever seen". The idea that we could be watching a coffee pot on the other side of the world was unlike anything we had come across before. Information and answers from all over the world were suddenly at our finger tips...if only we could find them. 

Over the next few years answers became suddenly cheap. You didn't need to go to the library or buy the book, because chances were someone had ripped off the ideas or at least written a summary.  If you wanted to know the history of France, how birds fly or how to fix your car, the Internet was the one stop shop for information. Answers and information were everywhere.  Answers became prevalent and cheap. 

Questions are the valuable commodity now. Perhaps they always have been, but even more so in this landslide of opinion and content. As leaders our role isn't just to provide answers, but to help people to ask the right questions - to discern between competing opinions in order to craft a way forward. 

There will always be places on leadership teams for those who can ask the right questions. Perhaps as leaders we need to focus less energy downloading all the answers, and spend more time getting the questions right.