Innovation expert Warren Berger is a longtime journalist with the New York Times, Wired, and Fast Company and the author of six books, including the international bestseller A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. He shows how innovators and dynamic companies harness the power of inquiry—one of the most effective forces for igniting change in business and life. He has studied hundreds of the worlds leading innovators, red-hot start ups, designers, and creative thinkers to analyze how they ask game-changing questions, solve problems, and create new possibilities.
How did you get into the publishing industry?
After getting a degree in journalism at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, I became a newspaper reporter and then began freelancing features for bigger papers like The New York Times and L.A. Times. I then started writing for magazines like Wired and Fast Company, exploring the topic I’m particularly interested in: the intersection of creativity and business. Publishers approached me to co-author some books and then I approached publishers to write books of my own.
Tell us about A More Beautiful Question. What inspired the idea and what do you envision the readers gaining from the book?
When I was doing magazine profiles of various innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, I noticed something interesting—they tended to be great questioners. Often, they were asking the questions nobody else in their field was asking, and this led them to great opportunities. So the point of my book is that we all should try to ask big, ambitious, “beautiful” questions that we can then pursue. My hope is that readers of the book gain a newfound appreciation of curiosity and questioning—and that they also come away with some practical skills and techniques that can help them to formulate more powerful questions in their own lives.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to your success?
In a time where you have to construct and promote your own personal brand, my most strategic move was to join forces with my wife and digital marketing partner Laura E. Kelly. This partnership has enabled me to build a tribe and get the word out about “beautiful questioning” in every kind of media without breaking the bank. I am a big believer in the “Powers of Two”—that if you can find a collaborative partner that truly shares your vision, it can have a dramatic effect on output.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
This is a period of exponential change, in which everyone is having to reinvent something—whether it’s themselves or their business. You can capitalize on that by helping to make some aspect of this reinvention easier to manage and more productive. In my case, it’s about helping people ask better questions—which is critical to transformation and reinvention.
I printed it on my coffee mug: “Keep calm but question everything.”
What was your greatest success as an author and innovation expert? And your most difficult moment—how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
By far my biggest breakthrough has been finding a fresh way to think about innovation (by way of inquiry)—which is important since there are approximately a million innovation books floating around.
My most difficult moment was when I released my previous book, Glimmer, to deafening silence. My editor had left the publishing house, Penguin, midway through the publishing process and thus my book became what’s known as an “orphaned” book, which means it doesn’t get the attention it may need. My takeaway from that experience was, you’re on your own as an author—you must be prepared to create your own noise and find your own opportunities.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Find a question (problem) that needs answering, and take ownership of it. So many great startup companies began with the founder tackling a promising question and then not giving up until he/she got to an answer.
How do you motivate your employees?
I don’t have any employees, only collaborators and co-conspirators. I motivate them by asking them for help, often via written proposals, which seem to have the most impact since writing is my forte. The real person I have to motivate is myself, and I do that by constantly revisiting my own “beautiful question” and feeling a surge of commitment to refine it and answer it.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Dim sum washed down with Tsingtao.
What literature is on your bed stand?
My side: George Saunders’ short story collection “Tenth of December.” On my wife’s side: “Unspeakable,” essays by Meghan Daum.
Role model – business and personal?
I’ve been blown away by the generosity of a guy who must be one of the busiest people around: Adam Grant. A writer, researcher, and professor at Wharton, and husband and father of three kids, his mantra (and book title) is Give and Take, all about how giving to others with no expectation of getting back will lead to success. Adam put my book on a “best reads” list that got a lot of notice, and has been very generous with introductions and publicity leads. The most interesting thing is that I’ve never met the guy, yet he’s been so helpful. Now I’m trying out his “giving” philosophy myself, and he’s right: it feels good and it works.
Right now, it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical play Hamilton, at The Public Theater. See it and you’ll understand why.
What’s next for Warren Berger?
That’s a beautiful question. My big ambition right now is to try to find ways to encourage more questioning by students in schools (where it’s usually discouraged). I have this theory: Knowing the answers may help kids in class, but knowing how to question will
help them in life.