The Secret to Asking Better Questions | The Wall Street Journal
May 2019 - Most bosses think they have all the answers. But the best bosses know what to ask to encourage fresh thinking. Here are six ways to build that skill.
By Hal Gregersen
May 9, 2019 2:24 p.m. ET
It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome.
Well, the same can be said of questions: Keep asking the same kind of question, and it is insane to think you are going to get a different kind of answer.
If you want a dramatically better answer, the key is to ask a better question.
In that one simple statement I have found a career’s worth of research, teaching and advisory work. No one raises an objection when they hear it—who could argue with the value of brilliant reframings? But at the same time, that statement alone is rarely enough. Most people want to be handed the five paradigm-smashing questions to ask.
Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. But what is possible is creating the conditions where the right questions are more likely to bubble up. To that end, here are some clear, concrete, measurable steps that any boss—or anyone, for that matter—can take to come up with those paradigm-smashing questions we all seek.
1. Understand what kinds of questions spark creative thinking.
There are lots of questions you can ask. But only the best really knock down barriers to creative thinking and channel energy down new, more productive pathways. A question that does has five traits. It reframes the problem. It intrigues the imagination. It invites others’ thinking. It opens up space for different answers. And it’s nonaggressive—not posed to embarrass, humiliate or assert power over the other party.
One CEO I know is aware that his position can get in the way of getting honest information that will challenge his view of things. Instead of coming at his managers with something like, “Competitor X beat us to the punch with that move—how did we let that happen?” he gets more useful input with questions like, “What are you wrestling with and how can I help?” He asks customers and supply-chain partners: “If you were in my shoes, what would you be doing differently than what you see us doing today?”
Think about how these questions change the whole equation. People don’t start off defensive. The problem isn’t already tightly framed. The questions are open-ended, and the answers can be imaginative—rather than telling the boss what he wants to hear.
If you want to turn this first point into a trackable activity, how about this: Start noting in a daily diary how many questions you’ve asked that meet the five criteria.
2. Create the habit of asking questions.
Many bosses simply aren’t used to asking questions; they’re used to giving answers. So in the early stages of building your questioning capacity, it’s helpful to start by copying other people’s questions. It’s the equivalent of practicing your scales. Once you’ve got the scales down, you can start to improvise.
You could do worse than to follow the questions asked by management thinker Peter Drucker, who liked to jump-start strategic thinking by asking: “What changes have recently happened that don’t fit ‘what everyone knows’ ”?
Another example: A leader in a consumer packaged-goods company constantly asks: “What more can we do to delight the customer at the point of purchase? And what more to delight them at the point of consumption?”
Again, think about what that does. Sure, the CEO could constantly repeat that the company wants to satisfy consumers. But by asking this question, it builds the habit of thinking in questions. And that, in turn, leads to daily inquiry about matters large and small, and an organization that keeps pushing its competitive advantages forward.
3. Fuel that habit by making yourself generate new questions.
Don’t stop with that generic question set, no matter how well you think it covers the bases. It will become just another activity rut reinforcing today’s assumptions if you and others become too familiar with it. Your goal is to generate new and better questions, not to cap your questioning career at the level of playing flawless scales.
New Perspectives, New Solutions
If you or your team are stuck on a problem, stop and spend four minutes generating nothing but questions about it. As in brainstorming, go for high volume and do no editing in progress. This will often yield a new way to look at the challenge and at least one new idea to solve it. Here’s an example of a question burst:
A senior executive at one global company shared a professional and personal dilemma:
“It’s really hard to say no, and in my role I probably say no 80% of the time.”
Here are some of the questions the executive and author generated in four minutes:
1. What hurt inside of you when you have to say no?
2. Where does that hurt come from?
3. What is the best experience you've had saying no?
4. How important is it that the hurt goes away?
5. How quickly does the hurt go away?
6. What's stopping you from saying yes?
7. Should the hurt go away?
8. What other resources could help you say yes?
9. Who's good at saying no and why?
10. What would your mother do?
11. Are yes and no the only options?
12. What has been the most painful no moment in your life?
13. Do you understand why it hurts so much?
14. Is it possible to say no in a way that it won't hurt?
15. What are the deepest yeses that give you the courage to say no?
Source: Hal Gregersen
Instead, every day, note something in your environment that is intriguing and possibly a signal of change in the air. Then, restrain yourself from issuing a comment on it—or if it’s your habit, a tweet—and instead take a moment to articulate the questions it raises.
Then share the most compelling of those questions with someone else. Engage with it for a minute. To some extent, this is doing “reps,” exercising your questioning muscles so they’ll be strong enough when the occasion demands. But it’s also more than that, because chances are it will actually be one of these many, seemingly small, questions that yields your next big breakthrough.
Let me offer a well-known example. Blake Mycoskie was in Argentina when by his account he noticed a lot of children running around barefoot. He didn’t need to ask why they didn’t have shoes—obviously they were poor—but here’s the question it brought him to: Is there a sustainable way to provide children with shoes without having to rely on donations? And thus he launched the social enterprise Toms, with its famous “one-for-one” business model.
4. Respond with the power of the pause.
When someone comes to you with a problem, don’t immediately respond with an answer. This is harder than it sounds, because you have probably internalized a sense long ago that you’re the boss because you’re decisive and have good judgment—in other words, you have the best answers.
Instead, make it your habit to respond with a question—ideally one that reframes the problem, but at least one that draws out more of your colleague’s thoughts on the matter. I’m not talking about the cop-out rejoinder of, “Well, what do YOU think we should do?” Help the person think through how the decision should be made, with questions like: “What are we optimizing for?” “What’s the most important thing we have to achieve with whatever direction we take?” Or: “What makes this decision so hard? What problem felt like this in the past?”
The payoff here comes in two forms. You’re teaching the colleague the value of pausing to get the question right before rushing to the answer. And nine times out of 10, you’re going to wind up with a better answer than the one you would have blurted out with less deliberation.
5. Brainstorm for questions.
This is an idea that is so simple, and involves an exercise so fast, that it constantly surprises me how effective it is. Whenever you or your team is at an impasse, or there is a sense that some insight is eluding you regarding a problem or opportunity, just stop and spend four minutes generating nothing but questions about it. Don’t spend a second answering the questions, or explaining why you posed a certain one. As in brainstorming, go for high volume and do no editing in progress. See if you can generate at least 15-20.
Eighty percent of the time, I find, the exercise yields some new angle of attack on the problem, and it virtually always re-energizes people to go at it with renewed gusto.
Here’s an example from an innovation team in a consumer-goods company. Struggling to come up with a new concept to test, we tried one of those question bursts. It started with, “What if we launched a response to [a competitor’s product] and did it better?” But soon enough it arrived at, “Are we stuck on assuming a certain price range? What if a customer was willing to give us 10 times that—what could we deliver that would be that valuable to them?” Bingo—the team zeroed in on that question as having real juice in it, and started generating more exciting ideas.
6. Reward your questioners.
Finally, keep track of how you respond when someone in the room asks a question that challenges how you’ve been approaching a problem or feels like it threatens to derail a solution train already leaving the station.
I remember hearing from executives at one company that the boss always surprised his top team by being willing to hear out even the craziest ideas. When others in the room were shaking their heads and hastening to move along, he would be the one to say, “Wait, say more…” to find the part of that flight of fantasy that could work.
If there’s one constant theme here, it’s the idea that bosses should reconceive what their primary job is. They aren’t there to come up with today’s best answers, or even just to get their teams to come up with them. Their job is to build their organization’s capacity for constant innovation.
Their enterprise’s future—and their own career trajectory—depends on their resolve to ask better questions.
Dr. Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Questions Are the Answer.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.