Question the Requirements

Thoughts about questioning, inspired by Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography

I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship … did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude? 

– Elon Musk on SNL

I’ve been listening to the new Elon Musk biography by Walter Isaacson during my commute. A common theme is that Musk questions everything.  

In Chapter 18, Isaacson shares a story from the early days of SpaceX. The team was starting to build rocket components, but the cost was outrageous. Musk was frustrated that their Merlin rocket engine was several times more expensive than a Tesla engine, which was four times heavier.

He questioned his team about the tremendous cost difference. The reason was that rocket components were subject to hundreds of requirements and specifications set by the military and NASA. Other rocket manufacturers followed these standards without challenge. 

Musk took a different approach. He made his engineers question all specifications. He instructed them to find out who created each requirement. Not the department. The specific person who approved them.

When they found the responsible party, Musk grilled them about their reasoning and the factors involved in making the decision. His intense inquisitions led to many changes to rocket component specifications and requirements.

People around Musk might have assumed his questioning was motivated by arrogance. Or contempt for those he deemed less intelligent or capable. 

It hit me differently.

The stories about Musk’s approach reminded me of experiences from my childhood. I was the kid who asked so many questions that it drove adults crazy. My curiosity was insatiable. Machines and technology consumed my attention. 

I needed to understand how everything worked.

I spent hours reading encyclopedia entries to learn about topics that interested me. 

I wrote essays to capture the information and help me understand it. 

I was in heaven when I received a 21-volume fountain of knowledge called the Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia: How It Works. The set included detailed drawings and schematics of nearly every major invention. 

Musk’s persistent questioning reminded me of being that child. The uncontrollable drive to know and understand. Sensing the frustration of those around me. But unable to stop asking questions. 

Maybe his motivation WAS arrogance. 

Maybe it was just his natural tendency.

The Questioner Tendency

In The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin describes four ways people respond to expectations. She says these tendencies affect every aspect of our behavior, such as decision-making, meeting deadlines, and engaging with others. Rubin calls the four categories Upholders, Obligers, Rebels, and Questioners

When I took The Four Tendencies Quiz, I was the Questioner. It didn’t surprise me. My life experience supports my Questioner tendency. I’m driven by a need to understand the reasons for things. I constantly pursue better ways to do things.

Hearing someone say “That’s the way we’ve always done it” elicits a strong visceral response in me. It reeks of blind acceptance and complacency. 

Questioners question all expectations. Inner and outer. 

We’ll do something if we’re convinced it makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t do it.

I’ll comply if you convince me why.

– The Questioner Tendency

The line between Questioners and Rebels is thin. When I’m pushed too hard to comply with something without context, my Rebel traits emerge.

This occurred frequently during my time as a corporate healthcare leader. I consistently challenged our operational processes and business development strategies. However, the organization was mired in complacency and a lack of innovative thinking.

My persistent questioning met with stiff resistance. It resulted in weekly “spirited discussions” with my regional manager and other senior leaders. When we reached a final deadlock, I moved on.

In the video below, Rubin talks about the pros and cons of being a Questioner. One point she makes is that Questioners can be tiresome. To themselves, and to people around them.

Many people consider Elon Musk a Rebel, but I’d bet that he’s actually a Questioner. It would explain his compulsion for constantly asking “Why,” and his tenacity in pursuing the first principles behind problems.

His methods might frustrate his teams and others around him, but no one can argue with his results. Musk’s projects generate innovations and products that profoundly impact our society.

His reasoning skills and ability to ask deep, insightful questions are pivotal in his success. 

Questioning Frameworks

Questioning plays a crucial role in learning and problem-solving, but there are many ways to approach it. There are three primary frameworks powering innovation in various fields. 

Socratic Questioning

Socratic Questioning originated from the Socratic Method of teaching. This framework involves a series of open-ended questions designed to stimulate critical thinking. It encourages people to explore and clarify their own thoughts and ideas.

The Five Whys

This technique, developed by Sakichi Toyoda, is used in problem-solving and root-cause analysis. The process involves asking “why” repeatedly (typically five times) to identify the underlying cause of a problem. It helps to dig deeper beyond surface-level issues.

First Principle Reasoning

While not a traditional questioning framework, this approach requires breaking down problems into fundamental principles and questioning assumptions. It encourages a fresh perspective and has been instrumental in Elon Musk’s innovative endeavors with companies like SpaceX and Tesla.

Comparison of Questioning Frameworks

Musk incorporates aspects of all three frameworks. He drives innovation by combining this approach with a natural Questioner tendency and the ability to quickly integrate answers into his thought process. The resulting methodology has become standard practice in his companies. It’s called The Algorithm. A 5-step process that starts with questioning. 


The Power of Persistent Questioning

Questioning is imperative for innovation. Even when it ruffles feathers. By continually asking “why,” we challenge assumptions and established practices. This forces critical examination of the thinking behind the way things are done.

Frameworks like the Socratic Method, The 5 Whys, and First Principle Reasoning are powerful tools. They leverage iterative questioning to unearth root causes and fundamental truths. 

In the hands of a natural Questioner, these tools drive curiosity and unlock innovative solutions. The intense questioning utilized by innovators like Elon Musk stems from an innate tendency to probe and a desire to find answers. 

Organizations can harness the power of questioning by embedding it into processes and culture. Leadership should encourage teams to constantly analyze and challenge standards through a spirit of learning, rather than compliance. This facilitates understanding of systems at a basic level, enabling teams to rebuild them in an optimal way.

A question-driven environment lays the foundation for innovation, but it requires high-quality discussions. Questions should lead to constructive debate and understanding, not divisiveness. With open and honest dialogue, questioning can transform entrenched systems that no longer serve.

The most influential innovations in history trace back to questioning the status quo. By creating a culture of inquiry, we can unlock our greatest potential and ease frustration. A spirit of discovery propels progress more than blind acceptance ever could.