To make better sense of the world and to innovate, we need to convene small groups of people to engage in creative conversations.
Creative conversations are triggered by powerful questions. What are powerful questions?
- Powerful questions are provocative.
- They spark creative thinking.
- This leads to new ideas.
- And new ideas, in turn, lead to innovation.
What are the attributes of a powerful question? And how do you go about designing such a question?
The usefulness of the knowledge we acquire and the effectiveness of the actions we take depend on the quality of the questions we ask.
Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery.
They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking.
Questions can lead to movement and action on key issues; by generating creative insights, they can ignite change.
What makes a Powerful Question?
There are everyday questions, and then there are powerful questions. So what is the purpose of a question? Well to solicit an answer of course.
If I ask “What time is it?” Someone might tell me “ten past two.” I have asked my question and received an answer.
But are questions that solicit informational answers that the responder knows the answer to, powerful questions? I think not.
So what is different about a powerful question?
A powerful question is one that provokes us to think deeply and to engage intensely in conversation with others that leads to a deeper or broader understanding of or new insights about a subject.
It is the thought process that is important.
So what are the attributes of a powerful question?
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
Credit: Albert Einstein
Attributes of a Powerful Question
In designing a powerful question – the following questions form a checklist against which you can evaluate it.
But remember there is no one answer to what makes a powerful question and there are not any hard and fast rules.
Treat this list as a guide only and break any one of these rules or more if you think it appropriate.
- The question is short and precise
A powerful question is nearly always a short one. It is easy to remember and easily understandable. But do not over shorten it – the most important thing is that it is clear.
Good example: “What will be the impact of this regulatory change?”
- The question is a single one
A powerful question is usually a single question – not multiple questions wrapped up into a single sentence. Though often two related questions wrapped into one works well.
Good example: “What are the barriers to knowledge sharing in our organization and how might we overcome them?”
- The question is open-ended
A powerful question is never a closed one but an open-ended one.
Bad example: Should we go ahead with the new branding exercise?
Good example: What should we do next?
- The question is provocative
A powerful question is often a provocative one.
It is one that slightly annoys or enthuses people depending on their values or beliefs.
Example: When we compete on price, are we revealing a lack of faith in the value our products deliver to customers?
- The question is slightly unclear or ambiguous
In some circumstances, it is helpful when a question is unclear or ambiguous in some way as it provokes thought around the nature of the question itself.
- The question does not contain any assumptions
Most questions we pose, include assumptions to one degree or another. A powerful question does not normally have any embedded assumptions.
- The question generates more questions
- The question is engaging
- The question is a little unsettling
- The question is not a leading one
- The question focuses on action and personal behavioral change
Questions that focus on action and personal behavioral change rather than academic or theoretical issues are excellent as they help keep the conversations grounded in reality.
- The question is a real issue and one that is of importance to the participants
If I had to summarize which are the primary attributes that help make a question an exceptionally powerful one, I would say
- It provokes people to think deeply
- It is a little provocative or unsettling
- It is one they can relate to at a personal level
- It focuses on action and personal behavioral change
Designing a powerful question
First, reflect on the purpose of the question and the ensuing conversations.
- What is the context?
- Why are you doing this?
- What is it that you hope to achieve?
- What outcomes would you like to see?
- What is in it for the participants?
Think about these questions carefully as they will determine the question that you ask. Now:
- Write your question down without too much thought.
- Now write several variations of the question but don’t judge them in any way.
- Look at the questions – do they broadly reflect the issue that you wish to tackle and the conversation you want to trigger?
- Next, evaluate each question against the criteria above.
- Modify or delete questions from your list as appropriate in the light of each criterion.
- Merge them if you can see an improvement
- And add entirely new questions.
- Ask other people for suggestions or to comment or build on yours.
- Take the list into your head, think about them as a whole and see if one single powerful question emerges.
When hosting a Knowledge Café, participants will often go way off-topic. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Café question is just a trigger, and as long as the participants are broadly on topic and discussing what they see as important to them, then that is OK.
Too broad a question leads to a wide diversity of conversation; the Café often works best when the question is open but quite specific.
Some Examples of Powerful Questions
- What uncertainties should be worrying us?
- What opportunities are we missing?
- What opportunities do new technologies offer us?
- What is the threat from new technologies?
- What else are we missing?
- What is the biggest threat to us?
- What’s the most important issue facing us?
- What do we have to do less of, to achieve more?
- What “enemies” do we have to defeat to achieve our objectives?
- What will our competitors envy about us in 5 years time?
- How could we better work together?
Questions Are More Transforming Than Answers.
The skill is getting the questions right.
The traditional conversations that seek to explain, study, analyze, define tools, and express the desire to change others are interesting but not powerful.
Questions open the door to the future and are more powerful than answers in that they demand engagement.
Engagement in the right questions is what creates accountability.
How we frame the questions is decisive. They need to be ambiguous, personal, and stressful.
Introduce the questions by defining the distinction the question addresses, namely what is different and unique about this conversation.
Credit: Peter Block
- See the Art-of-Powerful-Questions for an in-depth exploration of what makes a good question.
- Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar H Schein
- A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger
- The One Conversational Tool that will make you better at absolutely everything.
[Status: work in progress – I am not entirely happy with this post. And am still refining what I think makes a powerful question. Feedback is most welcome.
I also want to highlight my thinking about questions that cause people to review their own behavior and the need to focus on possibilities and not problems. Questions should be designed to trigger “new” conversations – new “thinking” and not the “tired old conversations” that we habitually engage in.]
This page is part of an online book on Conversational Leadership that I am in the process of writing.
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