How to Ask Better Questions: Mike Vaughan at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

So, I’ve been thinking about thinking for well over 20 years, and I think I have more questions than I do answers. Now, I’d like to share some of those questions with you today.

On my journey, I’ve been doing a lot of research and in 2009, I ran across this report that just really caught my attention. In this report – it’s from the company called the Millennium Project – and this organization consists of well over 500 scientists, researchers, academics, and business people from over 50 different countries. This report is called the State of the Future Report, and they outlined the 15 global challenges facing humanity. So the things you would expect to see: clean water, population growth, energy were all on the list. It was number 9 that caught my attention.

Number 9: the capacity to decide. In other words, decision-making made it on a list of the global challenges facing humanity. Why is this the case? Why is decision-making becoming more challenging, with all the information, technology, and tools that we have available to us? Why is decision making on this list? Well, about 10 years ago, we created this model. It’s very simple, but I think it does a good job in explaining both the problem as well as the opportunity. What we’re finding is that most training teaches people what to think, that is, it gives them the processes, the procedures, the methodologies, and the information they need to perform a task. This is very important, because we all need a solid foundation.

However, what to think is a lot like fast food: it’s convenient, it’s fast, it’s prepackaged, and oftentimes, it’s overly processed in the form of regurgitated ideas and opinions that do very little to contribute to our deeper understanding of the world. Mass media understands this, politicians certainly understand this, and I believe schools know this. Take for example news. They repeat the same message over and over and over until we believe it.

Politicians craft 4 or 5 bullet points and repeat those over and over. Schools: they package content, chunk it, and sequence it, and they give us a test to see if we could remember any of it. This begs the question then: why are we surprised when we find people that are not as creative, innovative, and passionate as they could be? This is where the opportunity comes in. We have to shift our thinking. That is, in addition to teaching people what to think, we also need to educate them on how to think.

So, for example, if I teach you what to think, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to a similar situation. However, if you learn how to think, you can take what you’ve learned and adapt it to multiple situations. In other words, how to think is learning how to learn, or as we like to say, it’s to learn, unlearn, and relearn quickly. My mission is to help schools as well as corporations find the optimal balance between what and how, and I’ve done this by focusing really on two areas: cognitive neuroscience and computer science. In cognitive neuroscience, what I’m looking for is how do we learn, that is, how do we create new neural pathways and looking at the impacts that bias, communication, education has on learning and memory.

From a computer science point of view, looking for new technologies that not only allow us to study decision-making but allow us to create an environment that we can put people in so they can learn how to think. We’ve done this by creating highly advanced computer-based simulations. Using these simulations, we can challenge participants to make decisions and solve problems that are similar to the ones that they face in their own organization. So not only do they learn how to think about their own organization, but we can capture significant amount of data so we can assess their thinking over time.

This is what we found. When people have a lot of training, that is, a lot what-to-think training, and they’re placed in these simulations, and they’re confronting the problems that they face in the real world, most participants resorted to guessing, that is, when we gave them more data, tools, checklists, choices, their decision-making did not improve; if anything, it got worse.

So, realizing that many of the challenges that people face today are too big for just one person, we shifted our focus to looking at team performance. So, here is our line of thinking. We thought if we can improve team performance, how people collaborate, how they solve problems together, we can then improve their overall thinking and hopefully, their decision-making. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say we are all part of the big organization and a few of us have been tasked with growing a certain division of that organization. So we get together, and I get together with you, and I say, “Hey, what does growth mean to you?” And you say, “Well, it’s about profitability and revenue.” I go to someone else, “What does growth mean to you?” You might say, “It is about people and engagement.” And another person may say, “Well, it’s actually about market share and price.” All of these are valid.

We’re excited to be part of something new, a new initiative, doing something important for the organization, so we get out there and make a promise we’re going to grow this division by x percent over this period in time. Then we get back together, roll up our sleeves and start putting our plans together, and that’s when it hits us. The realization that we all have a very different perspective of what growth means. When that happens, conflict happens. We’ve all felt this.

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