Using Ancient Texts to Unlock Creativity

Where does creativity come from? Asking the right questions can lead to innovation.

By Mark Polson

What is creativity and where does it come from? Creativity is often described as the combination of two seemingly disparate elements or ideas. The combination of these concepts together frequently leads to something that is completely new to the world. Where does the inspiration to join these two elements come from? There has to be a spark that ignites the fire of creativity to get to real innovation, and that spark is asking the right questions.

Through my own work driving creativity and innovation in business as well as teaching it at the Graduate School level for over twenty years, I learned the tremendous power of asking questions. The ability to frame the right question can unlock mysteries, inform the most brilliant strategies, and unleash the energy in all of us to be at our creative best. The art of asking the right questions is not new but are there overlooked sources we can draw from that can aid us to develop even better questions to conceive of concepts that we previously could never imagine.

While Socrates is often credited with the art of asking questions, perhaps another source of ancient wisdom can lay claim to perfecting it as well.  The Jewish tradition of asking questions, often known as the Talmudic Method, can help us to drive creativity and innovation in business.

Let’s consider some of the leading experts both in the fields of Jewish thought and business innovation for insight. The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was a Rabbi, theologian, philosopher and a leading voice in Jewish thought, explained the power of questions in the Talmudic tradition: “In the Talmudic method, there is no such thing as a stupid question. Every question is a potential insight, and every answer an opportunity to learn.” This mindset of valuing questions, rather than fearing them, when applied to the business world, can lead to new ideas and breakthroughs.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, explains that asking questions can also be used to challenge assumptions and biases: “Questions can be a powerful tool to challenge assumptions and biases that can inhibit creativity and progress.” In the business world, challenging assumptions and biases can lead to new perspectives and breakthroughs.

Tim Brown, co-chair of IDEO, a leading design and innovation firm and an expert in Design Thinking, highlights the importance of questions in the design thinking process: “Design thinking is all about asking questions. It’s about understanding the problem, and then coming up with new and innovative solutions.” By embracing a design thinking approach, companies can use questions to not only understand their customers, but also to come up with new and innovative solutions to their problems. Market researchers have conducted numerous focus groups that have resulted in product design changes and innovations by asking prospective users the right questions.

To illustrate these concepts, look at the State of Israel where the spirit of entrepreneurship is a way of life and where debate and questioning the status quo are encouraged. An Israeli company that has embraced the power of questions is the start-up Waze, which was acquired by Google in 2013. Waze disrupted the traditional GPS navigation market by constantly asking questions and challenging assumptions. By gathering real-time data from its users, Waze created a new kind of navigation experience that was more accurate and personalized.

Another example is the Israeli startup Mobileye, which developed a technology for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and was acquired by Intel in 2017 for $15.3 billion. The company’s founders constantly asked questions about how to make driving safer, and challenged the assumption that cameras were not accurate enough for ADAS. Through this process of questioning, they were able to develop a technology that is now used in millions of cars worldwide.

To bring this full circle, the Jewish tradition of asking questions can be a powerful methodology for driving creativity and innovation in the business world. By embracing a culture of questioning, organizations should encourage employees to challenge assumptions, uncover new insights and perspectives, and come up with new and innovative solutions. This approach is universal and can be applied to both start-ups and large organizations, as exemplified by companies like Waze and Mobileye.

Some key takeaways to consider:

Valuing questions rather than fearing them, can lead to new ideas and breakthroughs

Challenging assumptions and biases can lead to new perspectives and breakthroughs

Questioning is an important part of design thinking, which helps in understanding and framing the problem, as well as coming up with new and innovative solutions

Embracing a culture of questioning can be applied to organizations of any size and scale

Indeed, employing some strategies of Talmudic study like some of the following, can also be applied to creating an organizational culture that encourages creativity and innovative thinking and echo research that has identified the key leadership skills needed for the future:

Fall in love with the problem, not the solution – study the problem, ask questions, frame the issue.

Build a community – just as Talmudic scholars have communities and groups to study and constantly reexamine religious texts, create communities of practice within your organization for different points of view to get to innovation faster.

Be visionary – Talmudic study requires imagination and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity. These skills are essential for organizations to thrive in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world.

At the heart of creativity lies asking the right questions to truly understand the problem to be solved and will create a culture of inquiry in organizations, fire employees’ imaginations and ultimately produce products and services that bring value to the world.

Mark Polson

Mark Polson of Polson Associates, LLC has worked for major corporations build their capacity for innovation and currently teaches at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Visit:

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