Posted: 01 May 2021 5 min. read

When the answer is a question: Breakthrough Manifesto blog series redux

“Ask away.” – Siri

What’s your cataclysm sentence? 

This question was first posed by physicist Richard Feynman to the students in his Caltech physics lecture in 1961, and I heard about it in this episode of the Radiolab podcast. Feynman said: "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied."

It's maybe not surprising that Feynman's cataclysm sentence had to do with atoms—he was a physicist, after all—but the podcast gets even more interesting when Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad and producer Rachael Cusick asked people from all walks of life the same question Feynman posed, and their answers varied greatly, presumably influenced by their own unique perspective and position in life.

Mortician Caitlin Doughty: "You will die, and that's the most important thing."

Television writer and producer Cord Jefferson: "The only things you're innately afraid of are falling and loud noises. The rest of your fears are learned and mostly negligible."

Writer Maria Popova: "We are each allotted a sliver of space-time wedged between not yet and no more, which we fill with the lifetime of joys and sorrows, immensities of thought and feeling, all deducible to electrical impulses coursing through us at 80 feet per second, yet responsible for every love poem that has ever been written, every symphony ever composed, every scientific breakthrough measuring out nerve conduction and mapping out space-time."

Professor Alison Gopnick: "Why?"

After listening to this podcast, I got so interested in the idea of the cataclysm sentence that I started asking my friends what advice they'd leave the next generation. Incidentally, this is a great conversation starter to have in your back pocket if we ever get to go back to having cocktail hours and dinner parties. I was fascinated by my friends' answers, which ranged from "All you need is love" to "Build a sewer system."

What I love about all of this is how clearly it demonstrates just how different people's perspectives on the world can be. And it made me think of Business Chemistry (surprising, I know!) and how different perspectives on the world can influence so much about what we're interested in, what we share with others, and how we communicate and interact.

I also love the way it highlights the power of a question. To me, Feynman's question can be characterized as a black hole question—what science journalist and Radiolab cohost Latif Nasser calls the kind of question that is so compelling it has a gravitational pull, so that you must answer it. The beauty of a black hole question is that it can get people interested and engaged in something that they otherwise might not have paid any real attention to or had any curiosity about.

Speaking of the beauty of a question, you may remember I referred to Warren Berger's book, A more beautiful question, when I wrote about checking your edge. Berger homes in on what if...? questions as among the most beautiful (and powerful) forms a question can take. As I wrap up this year-long blog series on the Breakthrough Manifesto, it occurs to me that each of the manifesto principles I wrote about over this past year can be expressed as a powerful question:

A team who ask themselves all of these questions, or even just a few, will likely be well-positioned to break through the barriers that are preventing them from solving their thorniest challenges. But these aren't all of the powerful questions one might ask, of course. I opened this series with a summary of our research on Business Chemistry similarities and differences in approaches to problem-solving. Coming back to Business Chemistry now, one can imagine that each of the types will likely have its own flavor of question-asking when it comes to tackling a tough problem and finding the best solution.

Guardians might ask: How do we know this is the right thing to do? What will it require? What could go wrong?

Pioneers might ask: Why not do this? What are we waiting for? What else?

Drivers might ask: How long will it take to do this? How much will it cost? What will the payoff be?

Integrators might ask: How will people feel about doing this? Does everyone agree it's a good idea? What do they need to get on board?

It doesn't take much imagination to see how a team that asks a question or two from each type is likely to be better off than one who asks questions from just one type. And you don't even need all the Business Chemistry types in the mix to do so; just flex a bit to adopt some perspectives that are different than your usual.

Each of my previous posts in the Breakthrough Manifesto series ended with a summary of the actions you can take to encourage your team to live the featured principle. This time, I'll sum up by offering just one action to encourage your team to aspire to and achieve breakthrough: Ask more questions.

Stay tuned for my future posts, which will explore Business Chemistry and the science of virtual relationships, addressing a whole range of new questions like these: Can artificial intelligence make our relationships better? When and with whom might in-person interactions not be the best choice for relationship-building and collaborating? As we move toward hybrid working models, what role will digital stress and fatigue play in whether and how we build and nurture relationships at work?

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.