How to change the world in 3 questions

How to Change the World in Three Questions

If you want to change the world, you could do worse than follow the method of Bill Gates – Microsoft co-founder and now philanthropist who, working with his partner and wife, Melinda Gates, has set his sights on removing many diseases from the world.

The three question method – revealed in the series Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates – is shared by a campaigner who was invited to meet Gates and expressed his surprise at the questions that Gates uses. These are questions this campaigner had never heard anyone ask before – and they changed the way he now thinks about solving challenges.

So what are Gates’ three questions – and how can they help coach you to make your dent in the universe:

1. Why doesn’t it work?

Instead of asking someone to describe a problem or challenge, this question asks ‘what is the cause of the failure‘ – in other words, don’t tell me about the mechanical or superficial malfunctioning – let’s get to the heart of *why* this isn’t working.

For instance, when tackling incredibly high diarrhoea deaths, Gates isn’t so much asking about better/ faster medical treatment – but seeking to understand the underlying cause of so many deadly diarrhoea incidents – which turned out to be a direct consequence of incredibly poor sanitation.

And, looking at sanitation systems in rapidly growing shanty towns around many of the developing world’s big cities, the question is less about ‘why isn’t there a sewage plant’ but more about ‘why don’t modern western sewage plants solve the problem in developing cities…’ or ‘why doesn’t our current solution work‘.

We’re not looking too much at the problem itself – so much as searching for the cause(s) – the underlying ‘why’ of the problem.

And sometimes, we need to dig through a couple of layers to gain real insight.

Once we have clear insight into the problem, then we ask the next question:

2. What have you/ we tried?

This looks like a data question – ‘give me a list of what has been attempted’.

But, in this context, and asked second, it is a way to identify methods, approaches or schemes that have failed to tackle the underlying cause – so far!

Now we have an interesting contrast – why something hasn’t worked, and a list of failed attempts.

Remember, startups are built on failed attempts and then learning from them so that we can discover a new approach that will solve the problem differently. The same is happening here.

From this question, we can identify the following

  • have we focused on the real cause? If not, go back to question 1.
  • if we have the real cause in focus, and these approaches aren’t working, then we need to find new approaches – and success test those new approaches and keep testing until we solve something.
  • if we are clear about the real cause, and our approach or method *is* working or beginning to work, then we go to the next question:

3. What haven’t you dared to try?

Wow! That’s such a big question – and it can only be raised by someone like Gates who understands that to really change the world – we must do things that can scale and at scale!

If our solution is only going to impact on a few people – that’s great – but it’s not world changing.

To really have great impact – we have to ask – what haven’t you *dared* to try?

Or, to put it another way, what are you afraid to ask for!

In the first episode, Gates challenges his team to ask for enough money and resources not just to ‘make a difference’ but ‘solve this illness – to remove this illness once and for all’. He is saying, work out how much money will it take to succeed – and then ask for it!

If we’ve solved a significant problem, we can – like the Grinch – decide to tell no-one – or we can ask for the resources / the backing / the support to tell the world and make that change to the world permanent and forever – not just transitory.

We just have to dare….


Watch the trailer for Inside Bill’s Mind here.

If you want coaching help to raise your game and scale your impact, contact me here