A mere few years ago, the AI conversation was steeped in futurism. Today, AI’s tendrils have ensnared businesses in every industry, fostering metamorphosis at every echelon. Yet, despite AI’s pervasive presence, it is often viewed through a constrained prism, cast solely as an automation tool that extinguishes the doldrums of repetitive human labor.

In a piece published by Harvard Business Review, titled “AI Can Help You Ask Better Questions and Solve Bigger Problems,” authors Hal Gregersen and Nicola Morini Bianzino expound upon this paradigm shift. The authors believe that catalytic questions—a specific type of open question that invites creativity and exploration, and does not depend largely on data and logic to answer—could usher a revolution in terms of how enterprises rely on A.I. tools and technologies.

According to authors Gregersen and Bianzino, as AI becomes familiar with more advanced forms of human inquiry, its capabilities will resonate far beyond automating mundane tasks; it possesses the power to elevate questioning into a realm of abstract ideation, unfurling vistas of understanding in an ever-more complex world.

The key to achieving this, say the authors, is the synergy between AI and the “soft” skills of inquiry, intermingling critical thinking, innovation, and complex problem-solving.

“AI can help transform the conditions and settings where people work so that questions that spark change — what we call “catalytic” questions—can emerge,” write Gregersen and Bianzino. “This pushes leaders out of their comfort zones and into the position of being intellectually wrong, emotionally uncomfortable, and behaviorally quiet and more reflective, all of which, it turns out, promotes innovative thinking and action.”

Focusing on catalytic questions offers a tremendous runway for innovation, and it starts with creating conditions for better questions. In this way, AI can actually shake things up for leaders and make them try new things.

“AI can take leaders out of their usual mode of operation and force them to cede control over where their questions will take them,” write the authors. “That’s a good thing [because] increased question velocity, variety, and especially novelty [help recognize] where you’re intellectually wrong, and becoming emotionally uncomfortable and behaviorally quiet—the very conditions that tend to produce game-changing lines of inquiry.”

The implications could be widespread. According to the American Psychological Association, many psychology instructors are already experimenting with this approach, recognizing that the pairing of catalytic questions and AI chatbot technology could be a useful tool to prepare students for the real world where new, inventing thinking is more important than rote memorization.

The authors of the HBR piece cite, Jeff Wilke—former CEO of Amazon Consumer Worldwide— who is now a cofounder of Re:Build Manufacturing. Mr. Wilke is an early adopter of these conditions, which he believes assists with continually revising his own mental models while moving from role to role.

“If you seek out things that you don’t know, and you have the courage to be wrong, to be ignorant, to have to ask more questions and maybe be embarrassed socially, then I think you build a more complete model, and that model serves you well over the course of your life,” Mr. Wilke told the authors.

However, there is a catch: AI can be a bit tough for people to get along well with. This is because AI can do things that seem almost like superpowers, and it can do things you don’t always expect. Some may find it difficult to trust AI, which does not necessarily help when it comes to being creative and coming up with new ideas.

“Rather than neatly resolve all those tensions, leaders and teams must learn to sit with the uncertainty that comes from asking questions that take them into new territory,” write the authors. “While the process isn’t easy, the results are exciting, which is perhaps the most important benefit of collaborating with an AI system. Excitement provides momentum and motivation to push through a tough process, fueling further creativity.”

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