To get the right answer you need to ask the right question


When it comes to mentoring I’m a big proponent of asking questions of founders, as I posted in Ask don’t tell.

But Elon Musk goes further – he’s a proponent of founders asking themselves questions, the right questions.

The article Elon Musk on the 1 Creative Skill Every Founder Needs Now by Lisa Calhoun is a recommended read for both founders and mentors.

Musk believes, “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.”

Asking the right questions is a skill that can be learned, according to Warren Berger, bestselling author of A More Beautiful Question.


Berger says when he mentors that, “Oftentimes there may not be a right question. You know you’re asking a good question when you get sort of a rise out of people.

I agree with Berger, but I can define what I mean by a “rise our of people”. Oftentimes founders at mentoring meetings start off leaning back in their chairs. I know when I’ve asked a good question when they lean forward, elbows on the table. Some entrepreneurs even start meetings as “shoe gazers”. But again, if you ask a good question their heads snap up and a light goes on in their eyes. So non-verbal communications are a good way to tell if you’ve gotten a rise out of founders by asking a good question, if not necessarily the right question.

Musk says “To the degree we better understand the universe, then we know which questions to ask.” He gives a great example:

So Musk asked another question–why are rockets so expensive? “I came to the conclusion that there was really no good reason for rockets to cost so much, and they could be less . . . a lot less. If one could make them reusable, like planes, the cost of space travel would drop dramatically. The cost of the fuel was .2 to .5 percent of the cost of the rocket, kind of like the plane.” In fact, “Nobody had been able to make a reasonable rocket work–and I thought, if we can do that, that would be a breakthrough for space travel.” SpaceX was born.

To the degree we better understand the founder’s idea and personal aspirations in pursuing that idea we then know which questions to ask.

Questioning the status quo by asking Why? can be the first step in starting a new company. But as Warren Berger says of asking the right question:

That’s a good starting point.” Then, he says, getting your question in the world for feedback is the next step. The results of gaining feedback on the question, possibly through a demo or other minimum viable product, will help you understand if the question is ‘the right question’–or not.

Jay Ito, head of MIT’s Media Lab says:

“It’s a time of exponential change, so things are different every day. The old model of learning–that you do a lot of it when you’re young and then become an adult who doesn’t learn as much–that just doesn’t work as a productive way of living now. You have to learn new things all the time. And you learn by being curious and by questioning.”

So founder or mentor, learn to ask the right questions, of yourselves and of your mentees. You’ll learn a lot by so doing.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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