How One Question Invented Bill Nye the Science Guy

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You all know Bill Nye the Science Guy. If you’re of a certain age, you grew up watching him on TV. If you’re beyond a certain age, your kids grew up watching him on TV. But did you know that Bill Nye the Science Guy was invented out of desperation on January 10, 1987? And it all happened because a low-paid comedy writer asked a different question.

Motivational Speaker Bill Stainton

I was the executive producer of a Seattle-based sketch comedy TV show called Almost Live!, and Bill Nye was one of my writers. In fact, he was my lowest paid writer. January 10, 1987 was a Saturday—show day for us—and our primary guest for that night’s show had just called to cancel. There were probably eight of us sitting around the conference table, trying desperately to come up with a substitute guest. We kept tossing out names and quickly rejecting them. “He’s not in town.” “She’s in rehab.” “I think he’s dead.”

But then, my lowest paid writer, Bill Nye, piped up and said, “I might be able to do something with liquid nitrogen.”

We thought he was crazy. Here we were, trying to come up with a guest for the show, and he’s babbling on about liquid nitrogen.

Fortunately, Bill was able to convince us, and on that night’s show, Bill Nye (who really does have a science and engineering background) became Bill Nye the Science Guy.

And it all happened because Bill Nye asked a different question.

See, the rest of us were asking the question Who can we get to be a guest on the show?

Bill Nye asked the question How can we fill the time?

Can you see how asking a different question completely redefined the situation?

Quite often I see leaders and their teams struggling to solve a particular problem or overcome a particular challenge. And, almost invariably, they focus on the question closest to the front of the situation. What do I mean by this? I mean they focus on the question that seems the most immediate, the closest to, the situation at hand. In our case, for example, the immediate situation was that we didn’t have a guest for that night’s show. And so the question closest to the front of that situation was Who can we get as a guest?

But Bill Nye realized that sometimes the correct question—the one that will lead to the breakthrough idea—is actually further back. He stepped back from the immediate situation to ask himself, “What’s the real problem here?” And the real problem was not that we didn’t have a guest; the real problem—the one further back—was that by not having a guest, we had about 12 minutes of empty show to fill.

If you and your team have a problem to solve, or are looking for a truly breakthrough idea, the answer might be simple. In fact, it might even be obvious—if you re-frame the situation and ask a different question.

If you can't find the right answer, try asking a different question. #producingresults Share on X

Question: When has “asking a different question” helped you to see a solution to a problem or challenge? Please share your story in the Comments section below so that other leaders can benefit from your experience.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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