Powerful Questions: How To Design Better Questions for Better Results

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“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand

We ask the wrong questions all the time.

We ask questions that drain our energy, lead to dead ends, limit our options, or put ourselves in a box.

Imagine if you could ask powerful questions that inspire minds and engage people.

Imagine if you could ask powerful questions that lead to new options and new solutions.

You can.

Asking Powerful Questions is a skill you can learn and practice to get better results in work and life.

In the book, Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead, Rob-Jan De Jong shares an approach for designing and asking more powerful questions.

Powerful Questions Energize People and They Travel Well

The right questions provoke us.  Powerful questions can inspire us to explore an idea or to open up new doors for imagination and creativity.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“Artfully crafted questions generate curiosity, are thought-provoking, and invite creativity, as conversation specialists Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs have explored.  Moreover, such questions give energy, as the right question makes us aware of the fact that there is something to explore that we hadn’t fully grasped before. 

Powerful questions also ‘travel well,’ which means that they easily include and appeal to others.  They can draw in a larger group of people who feel intrigued by the question and energized to explore it with you.”

Dimension #1: Constructing Powerful Questions

We tend to ask yes/no type questions that don’t get us very far.

We sometimes ask who, when, where, and which, but these are also pretty limited.

Asking questions that start with how, what, or why are more exploratory and can lead to better results.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“To construct a question that opens up, you need the right interrogatives.  How, what, and why are particularly useful and much better than the less exploratory, who, when, where, and which.  But even these are better than the closed yes/no questions we tend to formulate.”

De Jong shares an example of how asking the wrong question can limit results and cause frustration.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“For example, think about the following question: Can our team become more innovative? Asking your team this closed question will probably get you a ‘yes,’ and you might feel satisfied with the agreement you have reached.  ‘So let’s work on that, then!’ could be your concluding words of encouragement as you wrap up your meeting, assuming that your team has now adopted some miracle mindset shift toward innovation.

Chances are high that three months down the road you will have experienced no change, to your frustration.  You might inappropriately draw the wrong conclusions and start believing your team is not wiling to work on this goal or is not capable of thinking-out-of-the-box.  You might even conclude that the team is non-committal to your leadership.”

Example: Improving Innovation with Powerful Questions

De Jong shares how with a simple twist, you can ask better questions that reveal far more actionable insight.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“If you instead asked, ‘How could our team be more innovative?’ you would have gotten a richer picture, and your understanding of the areas of improvement would have been far better. 

But even that’s not as powerful as asking ‘Why is it that our team is not as innovative as we would like to be?’ Or, ‘What do we need to change to ensure our team can become more innovative? 

These are vastly different questions that target the root cause of the apparent problem, and they are much more engaging and explorative.  But if you don’t ask them, probably nobody will.  Unnecessary frustration, affecting your leadership, grows.”

Dimension #2: Scoping Powerful Questions

You can create space to explore by playing around with the scope, or the size, of the question.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“Once you’ve chosen effective interrogatives, you are ready for the second dimension: stretching the scope and boundaries of your questions.  Questions we ask ourselves are often unintentionally limited by boundaries.“

Example: Expanding the Scope of Powerful Questions

Building on the previous example, De Jong shares how you can explore the problem in a more creative way, by asking a more powerful question.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“The question as framed in the previous example is limited to our team.  These kinds of unintentional boundaries are quick to creep in.  It was seemingly appropriate to limit the question to ‘our team’ — you probably didn’t even notice it as we worked from can to how to why. 

Expanding the scope expands creativity and imagination

‘What do we need to change to ensure that we can become more innovative for our customers/in our domain/in our company/in our industry?’ This question vastly widens the mental boundaries and yields much more space to explore.”

Dimension #3: Examining Assumptions to Create More Powerful Questions

We make assumptions all the time.  By examining our assumptions, we might reveal a new angle or a better question to focus on.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“The third, and often most difficult, dimension to catch is to examine the assumptions made in the question itself.  For example: What could we do to deliver our products faster to our customers?

A question like this one is built on the assumptions that customers want faster delivery. 

Maybe instead they’d prefer cheaper or less erroneous deliveries.  Or perhaps they do not even want delivery at all–maybe our customers would be most satisfied if we delivered to some nearby convenient location, where they could collect our products at their convenience.”

Example: Exploring Assumptions to Create More Powerful Questions

When you challenge your assumptions, you might find that your questions were limiting your exploration of the issue.

Via Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead:

“Even the previous question–How can our team become more innovative? –contains an implicit assumption: becoming more innovative is important.  Questions can inadvertently confine our exploration to something that isn’t one of our biggest challenges. 

Perhaps the real challenge is that we do not get along as team members, and hence, things like innovation and customer satisfaction suffer.  By limiting our focus to innovation, we might be overlooking the essence of what is truly holding us back.”

How can you design and start asking more powerful questions, today?

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