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How to think in questions, not answers
March 16, 2021

How to think in questions, not answers

Tips for entering the what if? zone

Written by Courtney Hohne, Storyteller for Moonshots at X

To open our minds to what the future could be, we ask outlandish “what ifs” all around X. This is particularly important in the earliest stages of our moonshot pipeline, where the 100+ ideas we investigate each year have a <5% chance of seeing their 1-year or 2-year birthdays. But no matter what part of X you visit, you’ll see us following a trail of questions, hypotheses, and experiments, learning by iteration where a 10x better approach might be hiding — as it’s never obvious.

This short animation will give you a peek at some of our latest “what ifs”. There’s no way of knowing how they’re going to turn out in the long run. But they fuel our optimism that solutions to the world’s most intractable problems are always within the reach of human imagination.

Entering the “What if” zone

You may have recognized a few things, like our computational agriculture project Mineral, our ocean health project Tidal, or our mobility project Smartypants. As for the more mysterious questions, they do refer to current X investigations, and we hope to tell you more about them eventually. From the iron-pumping crab to the high-diving lightning bolt, it’s all a fun reminder that life at a moonshot factory involves far more questions than answers.

But living like this isn’t easy. Our brains crave certainty and clarity, and most professional environments train us better for delivering answers and short-term progress than for exploring huge questions and winding, risky roads. To find truly breakthrough ideas, we have to train ourselves to break out of mental ruts and well-worn paths, and embrace the inherently uncomfortable process of letting the questions and experiments lead us.

Here are a few of the helpful tricks X has found over the years to do this.

Try “question bursts”. Hal Gregersen, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has literally written the book on why brainstorming questions — rather than answers — works better for shifting perspective and opening up new possibilities. Learn how to do this by reading his excellent Harvard Business Review piece and using his Question Burst Toolkit at work or in life.

Host “bad idea brainstorms”. Want to turn down the volume of that little voice inside your head that makes you anxious about saying “silly” or “wrong” things? Years ago, X’s Rapid Evaluation team, which comes up with new moonshot ideas, started holding “bad idea brainstorms” to help them get comfortable letting their nuttiest stuff flow freely. We’ve just launched an online game to help you do it too — try it and tell us on social media (via @theteamatx) what wild new ideas you come up with.

Prototype it. Meet Kathryn Zealand, head of the Smartypants project, and Joe Sargent of our Design Kitchen, in this video about the value of exploring questions with prototypes. It doesn’t matter how janky and cardboard-and-duct-tape it is, as long as it helps you learn — and everyone can prototype, even while working from home. Kathryn has even brought a prototyping, experimental mindset to her career.

One final point: don’t underestimate the power of naivete. In a commencement speech last year, X’s Astro Teller told the Class of 2020, “You have a big advantage: you don’t already know the answers!” I know you’re thinking, “I’ve worked so hard to become an expert!” But not knowing how things are “supposed to be” can actually be a secret superpower; your curiosity can lead you to questions that cast everything in a new light. So next time you’re determined to take yourself somewhere truly radical, think about using great questions to blast you out of whatever’s preventing you from seeing a world of new possibilities.

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