IN SINGAPORE, when a child comes home from school, his parents may ask: "What did you learn in school today? How did you do in your test?" In contrast, an Israeli parent will ask: "What questions did you ask in school today?"

This difference in parents' attitudes in both countries illustrates how we view the gaining of new knowledge. In life, what questions we ask can either lead us to very narrow, specific answers, or open up a world of creative ideas and possibilities. One remarkable way to start generating creative ideas is to ask "stupid questions".

Stupid questions, smart answers

Here's an example: "How can balloons catch pirates?" This seems like a crazy question. But let's try answering it.

How about using balloons made of something more durable, which are able to cast nets over pirates? Can we place high-resolution cameras on these balloons, which can soar quietly over the sea, and capture images of pirates and relay these to police patrol boats some distance away? This will help narrow down their search area for the pirates.

Chances are, when tasked to find solutions to this question, anyone can come up with a few possible answers, no matter how wacky they are. All it takes is a shift in perspective, challenging the usual assumptions and seeing things from new angles.

This is exactly how stupid questions work in sparking the imagination and helping you to come up with new and creative ideas.

Asking stupid questions is one of the most effective creativity tools to come up with ideas no one has thought of before. You can start by asking "What if" or "How can" and mention something about your problem.

For example, asking the question, "How to find a job?", can be imaginative when you add in a word from what you see around you, or something at random (spoon, airplane, radio, Disneyland, etc).

You may end up with: "How can finding a job be like using a spoon?", or "What if finding a job is done using the radio?" Then simply start listing down all the solutions, no matter how extreme they sound. Chances are, one of them may catch your attention and be worth trying out.

And because of its versatility, this methodology can be used in almost any setting: by individuals, within companies, by teachers and students.

How to get started

More than just a creativity tool, the methodology dovetails with the research enquiry services provided free of charge by the National Library Board (NLB) called Just Ask! and Reference Point.

Through specialist librarians in various topics, the NLB can provide research on the answers to these "stupid questions", to show how these new ideas can be implemented or utilised using examples from around the world.

Examples of this research include links to websites that touch on such ideas and their uses, articles from databases around the world, and books you can check out at the library for free.

Imagine this: people all over Singapore asking stupid questions every day and everywhere, and continually coming up with brilliant new ideas, new ways of doing things and making new discoveries that have a significant impact on their lives. Can you imagine the collective impact such an output of ideas can have on the country and everyone here?

It really is not hard to imagine a movement such as this. The key to being creative is holding back judgments that kill or stifle the output of new ideas and solutions right at the start, before giving them a chance to be explored or expanded.

To quote the late John Lennon, "It's easy if you try".