Asking the RIGHT Questions

To think about the future of a certain industry, we must start by asking questions. These questions should be honest, and they should be challenging. Right now, we can see entrepreneurs and technologists who are re-inventing entire industries. They do so by identifying a problem and then asking the RIGHT questions.

Only asking the right questions will allow us to think beyond what is currently the status quo. Since I have been a child, I asked myself, my dad, later my teachers and professors as well as business partners: “Why is that so?”. If you repeat this question often enough, you will come to a point where you either understand the reason ‘why it is so’ or you will realize that there is absolutely no underlying reason ‘why it is so’.

Five Whys

Later on in life, I learned that I am not the only one using this childish method of asking “Why is that so?”. It is called Five Whys. By following this technique, if you encounter a problem you start to ask “Why” five times to find the actual root cause. However, sometimes I believe we must go beyond five times. We shouldn’t set a limit on how often we ask why. Just ask “why?” until you really understand the problem and the actual root cause.

The aspiration should be to go from solving symptoms to solving the root cause.

Let’s use this model to see what’s wrong in the example of healthcare:

  1. Why does the patient have a high blood pressure?
    • Overweight and obese
  2. Why is the patient overweight and obese?
    • Lack of physical activity
  3. Why does the patient lack physical activity?
    • Lack of motivation to be physically active
  4. Why does the patient lack motivation?
    • Diet leads to inertia
  5. Why does the patient’s diet lead to inertia?
    • Overeating of bad calories, lack of nutrients
  6. Why does the patient eat a bad diet?
    • Lack of awareness and education
    • Result of bad habit loops

As you can see, this is an example I made up, but we had to ask “Why?” six times instead of five. In our current healthcare system, a patient probably would’ve left the doctors’ office with a prescription for an antihypertensive drug (with many side effects).

Asking the RIGHT Questions

Asking five times “why?” might be helpful to come up with a potential root cause. However, to innovate, to disrupt and re-define healthcare one must also have the courage to ask questions which challenge the status quo. We have to ask questions which challenge everything we currently believe in. By asking these kinds of questions, we will not only find the potential root cause – but an entirely new solution no one ever thought of. Therefore, after we have asked challenging questions, we also have to create bold hypotheses on what the answer to these questions might be.

Naveen Jain is also an advocate of “asking the right questions”. He proposes to first, realizing that there is a problem. Secondly, thinking about whether this problem will still exist in 5-10 years. If so, asking the RIGHT question why this problem exists and go after it.

It’s not about having the right answers, but asking the right questions.

Naveen Jain

Naveen Jain is the founder of Viome. Viome is a company which uses a unique metatranscriptomic sequencing technology to sequence microorganism in your gut microbiome and analyze the activity of these microorganisms to give you i.a. personalized nutrition and supplementation recommendations.

Before he started Viome, he asked himself the RIGHT question. When Naveen Jain and his team looked at the root causes of chronic diseases, they quickly found that the gut microbiome seemed to be involved in all of them.

However, the question everyone at the time asking was: “What organisms are in people’s gut?”. Which was the wrong question. The real question about to be asked was: “What are these organisms producing?”. Asking this question led him to start Viome, create a powerful technology and outcompete the competition.

Talking to Non-Experts

To find the REAL problems (aka root causes) behind many of the symptoms we see, we must ask ourselves the RIGHT questions before we come up with answers. We certainly have to challenge the status quo and therefore ignore all conventional wisdom. To do so, we must avoid talking to experts in that field.

Talk to persons outside that field. If you try to solve a problem in healthcare, for example, don’t talk to a doctor or medical researcher. Go and talk to people outside that industry. Tell a mathematician about the problem you have discovered – or a taxi driver, accountant, Spanish grammar teacher etcetera. Only this way, you gain an outside perspective on the problem which helps you find the RIGHT answer to the RIGHT question.

Resumée

To re-define an industry one must first ask the RIGHT question. Ask “Why is that so?” often enough. Especially if the answers of experts in that field sound rigid, go and talk with non-experts about the problem you have identified. By asking yourself the RIGHT question, you will find the REAL problem. In the REAL answer lies a big opportunity to challenge the status quo, re-define an industry, and drastically improve our world.

It all starts with a good amount of curiosity and asking the right questions.

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