“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions.” — Sir Antony Jay
Questions invite us to explore uncertainty.
Finding the answer is not the purpose of great questions — the discovery lies on the journey.
Your brain, just like everyone else’s, is lazy by default. It likes to ask suboptimal questions — your mind wants an easy answer, not to uncover breakthrough solutions.
Lazy questions create bigger problems than the one they are trying to solve. By asking idle questions, we miss the obvious: the key doesn’t lie in the answer, but in the question itself.
When the answer is self-evident, what prompts the question to begin with?
Asking questions is an art — it’s about opening possibilities rather than closing the loop with a perfect answer.
Why being right or wrong is lazy
We are not taught to ask questions, but to answer them.
Are you looking to fill a job with the right candidate? Do you want to avoid paying the wrong price? Are you obsessed with finding the right design for your new website?
Our education nurtures a lazy mindset — it forces us to see the world in terms of right or wrong. The same happens at work. Most managers couldn’t care less about the questions — they expect you to have the right answer.
We’ve been raised to think in binary terms — yes-no, right-wrong, black-white, ally-competitor, positive-negative. This dualistic approach limits how we see the world — instead of promoting an educational journey, it forces us to choose a destination.
Discovering new paths and solutions requires navigating uncharted waters. Learning is exploring new routes — you don’t know if you’ll land in the Indies or America.
Interesting questions provoke more questions — lazy questions encourage laziness.
Question substitution is a time-saving, but lazy way we use to preserve mental energy. As Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in this MIT Sloan piece: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”
This cognitive trick is why we keep making irrational decisions. Consider the following examples from Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Harder questions challenge ourselves; lazy ones make us avoid uncertainty — question substitution is a shortcut that takes you nowhere.
Multiple-choice or closed-ended questions don’t just narrow your perspective; they are judgmental too. There are many everyday questions that we would not want to answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Consider the question: “when was the last time you wish your boss were fired?”
There’s a presupposition that you usually can’t stand your boss and that you wish him/her to get fired. Whatever response you give, it’s wrong. The question is meant to make you look bad.
“Are you still beating your dog when you get drunk?”
It’s easy to create a situation in which, whatever you answer, the question would put you in an awkward position. Even if you answer ‘no,’ you would be implicating that you used to hit your dog.
Any answer you give would be misleading.
So, how can we get rid of the trap of duality? The answer is neither yes-nor-no — you want to avoid answering a question that creates misleading categories.
The third answer: Mu
How can we break free from binary questions?
The usual ‘yes’ or ‘no’ options are neither correct nor incorrect answers. Dualism limits your understanding of the problem. Who cares about the solution when you are solving the wrong problem?
To escape the trap of binary questions, you need a third answer: Mu.
In Zen Buddhism, mu is the answer to dichotomous questions — it invites you to unask the question, rather than answering it.
“Mu” is a Japanese word that means ‘not have’ or ‘without.’ Chinese calls the word mu ‘the gate to enlightenment’ — when you unask a question, you gain wisdom.
Dualism is the belief that two concepts are opposed to one another. Zen is about integrating both elements — it invites you to embrace a “Yes, and … ” mindset, as I wrote here.
Mu is the third answer — it repositions the implied dualism as false because the question is loaded. Rather than providing an answer, you must look for another question.
Answering mu is saying no to the right-or-wrong approach.
Instead of letting your lazy brain take over, you want to make sure you are solving the right problem. You decide to unask the question. You refuse to limit reality to a dualistic approach — innovation is about creating new solutions, not choosing among existing options.
Voltaire said: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
Unasking a question encourages you to continue the discovery journey — you focus on reframing the problem rather than stopping in the most convenient station.
How to unask a question
Garbage in, garbage out.
Should I stop smoking? Will I be promoted? Am I good at what I do?
The power of mu lies in not settling for a suboptimal question.
For example, the best question may not be how to diversify your offering, but whether to diversify at all.
By saying mu, you’re stating that no answer can exist in the terms provided. You are saying ‘none of the above’ — you move the discussion from options to possibilities. Not only you get rid of presuppositions; you don’t want to waste your energy in solving the wrong problem.
Here are five ways to help you avoid the trap of dualism.
1. “How might we…?” (HMW)
In the Design Thinking method, questions are structured in a ‘How might we…?” format to ignite more active brainstorming. Rephrase your insights by adding “How might we” at the beginning — find the balance between an open-ended and a relevant question.
Be creative and aim for something challenging to get your team excited. “How might we make our app more fun?” is not only vague but doesn’t focus on the real problem to solve. “How Might We make healthier food more affordable?” Check out this method card by the d.school.
2. Turn the challenge into an interesting one
The outcome is not the problem, but the result of a well-solved challenge. Audi was struggling at the 24 hours of Le Mans because its cars were slower than those of the competition.
“How could we win Le Mans if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?” Audi’s chief engineer asked. The solution: a fuel-efficient engine — fewer pit stops saved significant time, considering that the race takes 24 hours, to help Audi end in number one position.
Focusing on how to win the race is more important than having the fastest car, as I explained here.
3. Reframe the problem
Most of the times, we approach problem-solving as a knee-jerk reaction: we want self-evident problems with self-evident solutions.
That’s the problem of approaching life with a dualistic approach: we divide reality into opposite categories. The slow elevator problem is a perfect example, as explained in this HBR article. Most people’s reaction is to find a solution to make the elevator faster.
However, if we reframe the problem from “the elevator is too slow” to “the wait is annoying,” things change. You can develop solutions to make the wait (feel) shorter. Reframe the problem is like saying mu; you stop seeing through the dichotomy of slow-fast.
4. Is it safe to try?
The right or wrong mentality is why people fear to make decisions. It divides your options in two — no one wants to choose the incorrect path. However, by reducing the potential (negative) impact of a decision, you can unblock your team.
“Is it safe to try?” is a simple way to get rid of the binary approach. This simple question brings focus to the real risks and invites everyone to reflect on potential harm by considering what’s the worst that can happen, as I wrote here.
5. Lead with questions
Many disasters such as the Titanic, the Challenger and the Bay of Pigs could have been avoided if direct participants had raised questions about their concerns. That’s the premise behind Michael J. Marquardt’s book The Power of Questions.
A questioning culture encourages shared responsibility — everyone feels responsible for understanding the problem, sharing ideas, and speaking up. It promotes a curious and humble — ’I don’t know’ becomes a virtue.
Marquardt suggests we use open questions; we avoid asking to illustrate one’s cleverness, and challenge questions by asking ‘why’ five times. The author encourages managers to lead by asking questions rather than providing answers — questions are not about being right, but about being curious.
Questions open the door to discovery and learning; don’t let your lazy brain derail you with a right or wrong mentality. Rather than trying to prove that you know the correct answer, challenge the inquiry — unask the question.
The power of mu is adopting a curious mindset — become better at asking questions.
Upgrade your team performance
Download my ebook “Stretch Your Team — how to thrive in a changing world”: get your free copy.
This article first appeared on Medium.