Why does a prosthetic foot have to look like a human foot?
That simple question would revolutionize the world of prosthetics, leading to the invention of the flex-foot prosthetic, made famous by Olympic medal winner Oscar Pistorius, that has changed the lives of millions of amputees.
The Chapter 1 story of how the questions of young amputee Van Phillips inspired his groundbreaking invention sets the stage for Warren Berger’s brilliant and inspiring book, A More Beautiful Question, and introduces his powerful Why, What If, How framework, which will help readers exploit the full potential of questions.
Start With the Whys
When a water-skiing accident caused him to lose his foot at the age of 21, then-college student Phillips suddenly found himself walking on not much more than “a block of wood with foam rubber added,” Berger writes. As Phillips tells Berger, “I did have to accept that I was an amputee. But I would not accept the fact that I had to wear this foot.” Phillips’ frustration was encapsulated in the question that kept coming back to him: “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?”
Then Phillips took the vital next step: He decided to answer the question himself. “Why can’t they make a decent foot?” became “Why can’t I make a decent foot ” Dropping his broadcast major, Phillips enrolled in the top
prosthetics study program in the country. Through the next decade, Phillips continued to learn and continued to question.
At first, Berger writes, his questions were a series of Why questions, including questions about the material used (“Why wood, when there were so many better alternatives?”); about the shape (“Why does a prosthetic foot have to look like a human foot?”); and about the purpose (“Why is the emphasis on trying to match the look of a human foot? Wasn’t performance more important?”). Why questions are important in launching new ideas and mindsets, Berger notes, but to make change happen, Why questions are not enough. “At some point,” he writes, “Van Phillips progressed from Why to What If.”
While Why questions are pure inquiry, What If questions, Berger writes, are questions that lead to possible solutions. As Phillips continued to study the issues related to artificial mobility, a number of intriguing What If questions emerged. One concerned the spring force of
a diving board: “What if you could somehow replicate a diving board’s propulsive effect in a prosthetic foot?” Phillips also studied animal leg movement, notably how the bending of a cheetah’s hind legs produced a powerful spring force that made it the fastest land animal on the planet. He asked, “What if a human leg could be more like a cheetah’s?” Remembering how a curved antique Chinese sword was stronger than a straight sword, he asked, “What if I dispensed with the heel and created a limb that was one smooth, continuous curve, from leg to toe?”
The Final Stage: How
What If questions, Berger writes, formulate possible solutions. Turning those possibilities into reality requires a third set of questions: the How questions. As with any innovator, Phillips now had to ask himself, “How do I turn these ideas into prosthetic feet?” “This is the final and critical How stage of inquiry,” Berger explains, “when you’ve asked all the Whys, considered the What Ifs…and must now figure out, How do I actually get this done?” For Phillips, answering the Hows required building hundreds of prototypes, which led to his eventually successful design.
Van Phillips’ story is just one of scores of compelling stories related by Berger as he plunges deep into the Why, What If and How framework at the heart of the book. Berger also dedicates two of the book’s five chapters to (respectively) Questioning in Business and Questioning for Life.
Berger, a journalist, has not written the first book on the power of questions. However, his multiple compelling and well-told stories and an important and practical framework for breaking free of the tyranny of answers make his entry
one of the best.
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