How better questions lead to better solutions
Faced with too much information and not enough time, today's managers are pressed to make quick decisions. The downside to honing this skill, says CCL's Chuck Palus, is that people typically spend about 90 percent of their time solving a problem and only about 10 percent examining the problem and its context. "Often this means that they end up solving the wrong problem."
People take "mental shortcuts," acting on what we expect to see, says Palus, coauthor of The Leader's Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges. But we can learn to see past the façade or assumptions of an issue to examine the underlying situation. One way to do this is to become a master of asking powerful questions.
A powerful question is one that, in some way, fundamentally shifts your perception and changes your understanding of the situation.
Five types of questions
To help you see what you and your team may have overlooked, start asking different questions. Palus describes five categories of powerful questions:
R-mode questions (so named because they are associated with the right hemisphere of the brain) promote patterns, synthesis, visual metaphors, emotions or intuitions:
* What are the patterns?
* What is interesting, unique, beautiful or unusual about this situation?
* What is one hope you have regarding this situation? What is one fear?
* How do you feel about this at a gut level? What is your intuition saying?
* What questions are we neglecting to ask?
What-if questions help you break out of the rut of traditional analysis by encouraging imaginative thinking:
* What if we deliberately tried to make this challenge worse?
* What if we asked people why they did it this way in the first place? What would they say?
* What would be the positives if we failed?
* What would happen if we threw everything away and started over?
* What if I disappeared for a month and my team handled this?
Wild-card questions focus on scenarios that are highly unlikely or stretch our sense of reality:
* What are the most important wild cards for my organization, my customers and me?
* What would wipe us out?
* What are three future trends that could totally change the way we do business?
So-what questions get at the underlying assumptions about purpose and value: Why do we value this? Why is this more valuable than that? What is the essence of what we're trying to achieve? The "so what?" line of questioning pushes you to understand your context at a deeper level. For example:
What's so important about this challenge?
What's so great about this new product?
Our new product has more bells and whistles on it.
This will enable the customer to play more music on it while she works.
She will feel happier working.
If she's happier working, she will be more productive.
If she's more productive, the company will value her more.
And so on.
Appreciative questions offer a way to focus on what is going right, rather than looking for problems. Appreciative (or positive-frame) questions ask:
* What are we doing right?
* What are our strengths?
* To what do we aspire?
Seeing with new eyes
Many organizations stay in the rut of asking the same questions and getting the same answers, but it doesn't have to be that way. As a team leader for a chemical products company told Palus: "This company is famous for collecting more data. My team would collect the data and look at it with the same set of eyes all the time and ask the same questions and get the same answers. We learned to look at the same data in a different manner. Once we learned that, it opened up other avenues to looking at different sets of data that the team wouldn't even have considered before."
The Context of Questions
Powerful questions can have pitfalls, too, if you ignore the context. CCL's Chuck Palus advises leaders to:
* Cultivate openness. Create an environment where asking and responding to powerful questions is invited, supported and expected. When you cultivate openness, the discussion can be less about having the right answers and more about the situation and its possibilities. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone.
* Avoid using questions as weapons. Asking powerful questions is not the same thing as grilling someone about what they are doing or why. Questioning is not a strategy for criticizing how things are done or for slamming the ideas and skills of others. Be careful not to use questions as weapons or to intimidate. Instead, build an environment of trust and a context of exploration.
* Slow down at critical times. When faced with complexity or challenges with high stakes, slow down and pay attention so that you notice more. Asking questions allows you to dig deeper and consider new perspectives. But don't rush or look for a final answer immediately; instead, let the process emerge and lead the way during critical times.
This article is adapted from The Leader's Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges, by Charles J. Palus and David M. Horth (Jossey-Bass, 2002).