How to spot great opportunities: ask “Why?”

Ameet Ranadive
Jan 28, 2018 · 10 min read

Edwin Land and the Polaroid Instant Camera

Edwin Land demonstrates Polaroid color instant photography.
Fritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

“Why do we have to wait for the picture?”

As Berger writes:

How to create Why? questions

Innovators ask Why questions when they look at an existing, less-than-ideal reality and ask the question:

Why does it have to be this way?

As I mentioned above, Why is about seeing and understanding. To really see, you must “attempt to adjust the way you look at the world so that your perspective more closely aligns with that of a curious child.”

Step back

We’re often moving so fast, knee-deep in the details of our work, that we can miss the fundamental Why questions that we should be asking. Stepping back requires us to stop doing and stop knowing in order to start asking, Why?

Beginner’s mind

One technique for enabling us to step back from knowing is called beginner’s mind. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk and teacher, first popularized the concept of beginner’s mind:


Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Randy Komisar advocates being detached as a way to develop the beginner’s mind, and to open yourself to new possibilities. As Berger writes about his conversations with Komisar:

Empty bucket

TED founder Richard Saul Wurman uses the analogy of an empty bucket in order to step back and develop the beginner’s mind. As Berger writes:

Notice things that others miss

Stepping back from doing and knowing is not enough to ask innovative Why questions. In addition, we have to be able to notice things that other people miss.

Vuja de

One technique for noticing what others miss is to approach things from a vuja de perspective. As Berger writes:

Keep looking

Why do many people fail to notice important insights? IDEO’s Kelley “thinks it’s because we don’t generally take the time required for close observation. When people fail to notice what’s right in front of them, it’s often ‘because they stopped looking too soon.’”

First principles

The last technique for noticing what others miss is thinking from first principles. Elon Musk of Tesla describes the essence of First Principles Thinking as follows:

Challenge assumptions

Stepping back and noticing things that others miss greatly help us formulate insightful Why questions. The last step that Berger advocates is to challenge assumptions (including our own).

Question defaults

Wharton Professor Adam Grant in his book Originals discussed the approach of questioning defaults to attain the vuja de perspective.

The Five Whys

To better understand and question assumptions, we can use a process known as the Five Whys. Berger discusses how Toyota uses this process:

Opening and closing questions

Another great way to challenge assumptions is to use a technique to open and close questions. Berger writes about this approach, developed by the Right Question Institute:

Why does this situation exist?

Why does it have to be this way?

Why has nobody solved this problem before?

Asking Why is about seeing and understanding. In order to do this, Berger argues that we must do the following:

  1. Notice things that others miss
  2. Challenge assumptions (including our own)

PM Insights

A collection of posts that contain lessons learned from my time as a product manager.

Ameet Ranadive

Written by

Entrepreneur. Product management @ Instagram.

PM Insights

A collection of posts that contain lessons learned from my time as a product manager.