Aside from punctuation, there may not seem to be much of a difference between a statement and a question. But our brains recognize a stark contrast.
My company aims to change how we grow food for the world, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we introduce our organization. Usually people do this sort of thing with a statement about their purpose, but I find the standard mission-statement format to be stagnant, abstract, and even dictatorial.
Questions, on the other hand, are alive. They spark curiosity, inspire continuous engagement from your team, and they can even transform your corporate identity.
When we’re asked a question, our brains release serotonin and trigger something called instinctive elaboration—basically, we can’t help but put our problem-solving hats on and start volunteering solutions.
But not all questions are created equal. To get the most out of the power of inquiry, it’s crucial to ask a question in a way that elicits real answers. Here are a few things I’ve learned about harnessing the power of human curiosity to uncover hidden potential, possibility, and even profits.
Ask what’s possible—not what isn’t
Whether it’s how to multiply your revenue by 10 or solve climate change, a great core question assumes an answer is out there—you just have to find it. As Tony Robbins points out extensively, framing questions in the positive is pivotal to how we see the world, both in business and in life.
Asking “How can we…” instead of, “Why can’t I…” not only engages our brains and gives us permission to think outside the box, it directs us away from our negativity bias so we can focus on finding solutions.
This approach was central to getting my own business off the ground. In the beginning, our question was: “How can we make natural pest control effective?” That phrasing was key. It was inherently optimistic. It had a “mission” baked right in from the start.
By posing it as a question, rather than a statement, I wanted to invite my team to participate in a daily and ongoing act of discovery.
Let your questions evolve, and your company will follow
Questions don’t occur in isolation. Answering one simply opens the door to asking another. If you follow this line of inquiry, you can utterly transform your business.
Once we successfully launched a line of products, we started asking what else was possible for us to do with the technology we’d developed. It quickly became clear that we wanted to apply what we’d learned to create affordable, sustainable systems that could be applied across the world.
Asking how we could do that led us to a pivotal realization: Our identity as a company had evolved.
We may have started out in the natural products sector, but we’re now an AgTech firm harnessing data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to improve global crop yields without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Continually asking ourselves what we stood for helped us take stock of our capabilities and enter a whole new market.
Laser-focus your language
Today, every decision we make is inspired by asking this: “How can we use technology to unlock the power in nature so we can live healthier, make clean food affordable, and feed the world?”
This probably sounds wordy. But the specificity and the exact wording of this question matters. Similar to when you’re setting SMART goals, language that is specific, measurable, achievable, and relevant brings structure to your question and focuses your momentum on the important things.
For example, many clean technology companies ignore issues like affordability, so it was important for us to include it in our core question. (That’s why we chose to say “clean” food versus “organic,” as organic food is still a luxury item for many people.) Meanwhile, introducing the word “technology” was crucial in solidifying the new direction of our company internally.
It takes time and brainpower to lock in your language to cover all aspects of your strategic goals, but getting nit-picky is well worth it. The more nuanced your question, the better your answers, so keep refining as you go.
Use questions to guide your KPIs
Questions aren’t just for high-level inspiration; they can be practically applied at every level. Each of our departments has its own core question to guide its day-to-day operations and focus teams on their KPIs. For instance, our R&D team might ask “How can I simulate a scenario that is closer to conditions in the field?” Measuring progress against this question creates a very clear set of goals that everyone can understand.
Using questions as a process helps ensure we’re aligned, and can also uncover areas of disconnect.
Case in point: Our sales team was asking how they could sell more of our products each day, and they were crushing that goal. But we realized their question didn’t advance the bigger question: “How can we help farmers convert to more natural farming practices?” So we baked an education element into those sales goals.
At the end of the day, what I love most about questions is that they don’t dictate; they invite inquiry and unlock people’s creative potential. A mission is about what is required. A question is about what is possible.